As part of my job on campus, I have to read a lot of old materials pertaining to Bucknell- old newspapers, event announcements, letters, etc. While much of the stuff certainly reflects attitudes from bygone eras, the vocabulary used in even the most formal of publications would stun even the least PC person today. Every decade or so has its words and it seems that what is “acceptable” is an ever changing list of words.
A hundred years ago, moron, idiot, and imbecile were perfectly fine words to use to refer to someone who is “intellectually disabled”. If you’re still one of the people using the phrase “mentally challenged” you better get with the times lest you be labeled “offensive”. Between “moron” and “intellectually disabled” there was “slow” and “mentally retarded”. All these words at one point appeared in legislation, medical journals, and scholarly writings. In ten years, “intellectually disabled” will likely be an offensive term and something new and even longer will be the accepted phrase.
“People of color”-the current PC term- has had a similar history. We used to have “colored” and “negro”. Then it was “black”, and then it was “African-American”. Grammatically speaking, “people of color” is the same as saying “colored people”, but only one of those terms has been deemed offensive.
The reason for our continuous replacement of terms lies in their usage and not within the words themselves. The process of pejoration occurs when people use these words as slang to imply something negative. Whether a child at school calls someone else “retarded” or “intellectually disabled”, his motive is the same. Until the attitudes of people have changed, these labels will continually be used in ways they were not intended to be. Even the term “politically correct” has developed to be somewhat negative. Two-hundred years ago, the term literally meant to be accurate when speaking of politics. Now it is associated with race, mental capacities, gender, and more. Political correctness doesn’t fix any problems because it’s just a method of picking and choosing among synonyms in the “war on language”. If we really wanted to dress the problem of offensive speech, we would look to changing the intentions behind the use of certain words. However, its easier to change a word than a mind so I guess this facade of decency is what were stuck with for now.