Being Politically Correct in English

Being politically correct in any language is difficult. As words become negatively charged and used insultingly, they are replaced by more neutral words which themselves become negative. This is because there are issues deeper and more permanent than the words used to describe them.

An example of this in Sweden is that the neutral word immigrant is often used to describe a certain section of the population, and not always in positive way. The term New Swede is often used instead but this is found slightly ridiculous by others and used sarcastically by others.

Words for travelling people are often negative. tinker, pikey, scally, chav (originally the Romanian word for boy), gypsy have all been moved into the ‘NOT politically correct’ category. The word Roma is used instead.

Political Correctness

  • use people after certain ‘sensitive’ terms – black people, disabled people, Jewish people.
  • the opposite of disabled is able-bodied, not normal.
  • Native American (not Red Indian), Inuit (not Eskimo), Hispanic, Asian, Roma (not
    gypsy), visually impaired (not blind), hearing impaired (not deaf), developmentally disabled, developmentally challenged (not retarded or mentally handicapped)
  • avoid pikey, chav, scally, negro, handicapped

The biggest problem for non native English speakers is that the turnover of these words is quite high – they change fairly quickly so you need to keep up with the lingo so to speak.  In English we have been from handicapped to disabled to person with a disability to a person living with activity limitations within three or four years.

People with challenges often joke about them, but as in any language it is more acceptable about someone to laugh about themselves than for other people to laugh at them.

Sometimes it does go too far – for example some municipalities in the UK have banned the word ‘brainstorming’ because they felt it was negative to people with epilepsy (note I did not say epileptics). The word ‘thought showers’ is now used instead.

Another tip would be to not use the word black to describe something illegal (an unauthorised taxi, an off the books worker, an off the books job, to pay  someone off the books or under the table is better). Black market and black economy are, however, acceptable.




Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

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