BOOK REVIEW / The way we talk now: Zoe Heller explores the blather and hokum that spoil the argument over political correctness: The War of the Words - Ed Sarah Dunant: Virago, pounds 7.99

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The life-span of most catch-phrases follows the same pattern; a felicitous moment of coinage when some social trend is 'caught' for the first time; a period of popularisation during which the term enters into common language via the media; a high point of ubiquity (often heralded by hearing your grandmother use the phrase); and finally saturation, when the term, grown baggy and vague, starts to function as a generalised form of abuse.

Just like 'yuppy' or 'permissive society' before it, the phrase 'political correctness' has been made to carry such a freight of conflicting, vulgar interpretation as to be almost useless now. Perhaps inevitably, the essays in this collection rehearse that confusion by seeming to address quite different and discrete phenomena. Sarah Dunant, the editor of The War of the Words, describes the book as 'a sane, critical and long overdue look at what political correctness actually is'. But that optimistic, commonsense tone of hers, reminiscent of a headmistress convening a Sixth Form debate, is not borne out by the essays that follow.

Melanie Phillips attacks trendy teaching practices that seek to do away with 'elitist' notions of Standard English. Yasmin Alibhai Brown rails against the racist bits in Enid Blyton. Meera Syal writes an elegy for the GLC, and Christopher Hitchens defends America's constitutional commitment to free speech. These people are set up as 'adversaries' and perhaps they truly are, but for the most part they have steered frustratingly clear of talking about the same things.

The most intriguing parts of this book are the areas of overlap, as when, for example, both Hitchens (anti-PC) and Deborah Cameron (pro-PC) discuss the question of language codes. Hitchens describes the product of PC efforts as 'a cocoon spun from blather and drool'. Deborah Cameron argues that the 'plain speaking' to which Hitchens is so attached is never quite as plain as supposed. 'Somone who claims 'African-American' is a euphemism because it makes no reference to skin colour is implicitly asserting that a description of people by skin colour is a value-neutral description,' Cameron writes, with an air of having closed the case.

But actually there isn't any value inherent in the word 'black' - just as there isn't any value inextricably buried in the word 'ginger'. It is context that confers a value on these adjectives. Describing someone as 'ginger-haired' may take on very aggressive overtones if I am running for public office on a 'Kill the freckle- faced scum' ticket; but equally it may be a term of approbation if I am giving a speech at a 'Ginger is beautiful' conference. Puzzlingly, Cameron goes on to describe the notion of a fixed and timeless relationship between words and their meanings, as 'extraordinarily naive'. Quite so. Why then does she imagine that 'African American' is any less vulnerable to racist usage than 'black'?

Cameron concedes that changing language may have a negligible effect on underlying attitudes but this, she says, is not the point. 'The fact that my boss seethes with inward resentment while addressing me respectfully is less damaging to me,' she writes, 'than if he addressed me disrespectfully in accordance with his true feelings'. Well, perhaps and perhaps not. Stuart Hall, in an extremely canny essay at the end of this collection, assumes the good faith of most PC exponents but challenges their chosen strategies. PC, he writes 'is a vanguardist tactic, pursued as if it could yield political results . . . if the way we practice politics doesn't succeed in 'winning identification', it cannot produce the new political subjects who must actually sustain the practice, no matter how 'objectively' correct the analysis.' In other words, forcing your seething boss to refer to his female staff as 'women' rather than 'girls' may bring a righteous flush of victory to your cheeks, but your satisfaction will be shortlived.

Hall's sensible advice to the British left - it might yet win the war if it is prepared to be a little less vociferous in some of its battles - does not really apply to university education where, in many cases, the PC idea has already won the war for 'hegemony'. Lisa Jardine's essay about correcting the canon of English literature is an unintentionally alarming exposition of the sort of claptrap now apparently holding sway in her English department at the University of London. Her 'strategies of inclusion' for teaching English literature are designed to ensure that nobody feels excluded - by virtue of colour, gender, age or religion - from the texts being taught. 'It is as the student reads the text written with another kind of reader in mind, that she or he learns to position themselves as outside the group directly addressed by the work and not specifically included.'

I know, I know - it was a great blow to me when I first discovered that the author of Beowulf had not been writing for me, specifically. It would have been such a relief if someone like Jardine had been on hand to encourage a critical response to Grendel based on my 18-year-old white femaleness.

Lisa Jardine is careful to point out that she and her colleagues never 'ban' books. Rather, in the case of someone like Philip Larkin, whose 'Little Englishness' upsets them, they simply 'contextualise him in a specialist second year course on 'Fifties British Poetry' ' and watch while 'a wider frame of reference, more culturally inclusive and alert to the values of a more diverse and multicultural Britain' put him in his rightful, marginal place. In Jardine's little fiefdom, this is what happens to any author, who 'reveals himself to be out of tune with the attitudes, beliefs and value systems of those who study him.' The thought of this woman polluting young minds with such hokum depresses me beyond measure. What, are we to reshuffle Austen to the bottom of the pack for her snobbery? Shall we relegate Spenser for rejoicing in the massacre of the Irish rebels? Must we check to see whether Henry James's views on the European Community are kosher?

In an admirably cogent essay on date rape, Linda Grant observes that 'radical change has always attracted zealots, for it is only those who see the world in black and white terms who can initiate and sustain action.'

Much feminist discussion of date rape has been rightly criticised as simplistic and extremist, but in the long run the row will be shown to have effected important alterations in sexual attitudes and mores. This idea - that from out of the PC skirmish sensible consensus and compromise will eventually emerge - is an attractive one. But mostly what the essays in this collection suggest is that the fight is still a very long way from over.

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