Enter the era of caring words: PC has made it past the critics into the dictionaries, reports Tom McArthur

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NEW WORDS are not born in a vacuum and we never know how long they will stay. 'Uptight' and 'flower power' are products of the 1960s, but whereas the first is now part of everyday language, the second is history. 'Yuppie' and 'power breakfast' emerged in the 1980s, but neither is assured a permanent place in the lexicon. So matters are even less certain for the current hobbyhorse, 'political correctness' and such kindred expressions as 'ableism' and 'Afrocentric'.

The idea of a 'correct' line to follow is a familiar part of 20th-century political discourse. In the United States around 1990, however, the phrase 'politically correct' was given a novel spin by right-wing writers. They used it to isolate - and demonise - a growing movement among radical students and teachers, minority rights advocates, literary theorists, environmentalists and others who were concerned to eradicate various forms of prejudice.

The abbreviation PC, for the movement and any of its proponents, followed quickly. In January 1991, the title of a Newsweek feature was 'Thought police: Is this the new enlightenment or the new McCarthyism?' In May, the Guardian asked, 'Are you now or have you ever been 'politically correct'?' (in a piece headlined 'Mind your language'). Its author, Mike Bygrave, reported that US courses in the history of race relations had been withdrawn after professors were hounded for 'racial insensitivity'.

Other flaws include 'ableism', a dismissive attitude towards the disabled (or, in PC terms, the 'differently abled'); 'ageism', disdain by the older young and the younger old for the very young and the very old; 'Eurocentrism', bias in favour of Western values (as opposed, say, to Afrocentrism) and the achievements of 'DWEMs' (Dead White European Males); 'classism', the prejudice of one social class against another (usually upper towards lower); 'lookism', the 'privileging' of one standard of beauty, usually Western and especially applied to women (also distressing for the 'aesthetically challenged': the ugly and the deformed); 'weightism', bias against fat people; 'sexism', prejudice against women on the part of men (and, in principle, though less often, against men on the part of women).

Curiously, PC - both as a term and as a phenomenon - emerged just as the Soviet monolith began to crumble. It is a handy umbrella term for a 'rainbow coalition' of social activists. These include people concerned about ethnic tensions in mixed neighbourhoods and the integration of 'Third World' migrants into 'First World' societies. As a consequence, 'multiculturalism', once a neutral term, has become sinister for some conservatives.

Irving Kristol in the Wall Street Journal (July 1991), while acknowledging the honest, educational intentions of most advocates of multiculturalism, wrote: 'The force is with the extremists, who ride roughshod over the opposition by intimidating it with accusations of 'racism' . . . Recently, a journalist telephoned five leading professors of Egyptology, asking what they thought about the claim of a black Egyptian provenance for Western civilisation. They all said it was nonsense. At the same time, they all withheld permission for their names to be attached to this risky, 'politically incorrect' position.' Kristol presents multiculturalism and PC as anti-Western and, for America, 'an educational tragedy'.

This demand for a cleaner and more caring lexicon is only the latest of many phases. One thread concerns the shift in names for Americans descended from African slaves, from 'nigger' to 'Negro' to 'person of color' to 'black' to 'Afro-American' to 'African-American'. Another is the argument against words containing 'man', ranging from the widely accepted 'humankind' for 'mankind' through the controversial 'chairperson' and 'chair' to such sly sallies as 'personhole cover'. Even the gender of God has not been safe in various adaptations of Christian texts.

Inevitably, dictionaries are drawn into the discussion. In the US in 1991, the Random House Webster's College Dictionary defined 'politically correct' as 'marked by or adhering to a typically progressive orthodoxy on issues involving esp. race, gender, sexual affinity, or ecology'. In the UK in 1992, the Oxford Modern English Dictionary defines 'political correctness' as '(esp. in the US) avoidance of forms of expression and action that exclude or marginalise racial and cultural minorities; explicit multiculturalism'.

Neither indicates that these phrases are usually intended pejoratively. Indeed, both are rather upbeat about PC. Comparably, the term 'Quaker' was once reproachful and dismissive, but later lost its negative connotations. The same kind of thing may have begun to happen to 'politically correct' and especially to PC.

PC has its style manuals (one dates back to 1980), warning against the thoughtless use of words such as 'articulate' (applied to a person from a minority, it might imply that the rest are incoherent) or 'banana' (slang for a Westernised Asian: yellow outside, white inside). Humorous send-ups have also arrived, and may help re-establish a sense of proportion. The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook, by Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf (Random House, 1992), states that those who flunk exams have not failed, but only 'achieved a deficiency'. And the dead - those ancient favourites of euphemism - are simply 'terminally inconvenienced'.

The author is editor of the 'Oxford Companion to the English Language', published in September.