What does politically correct language mean?

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It was a particularly warm day in the fall when I used “Indian summer” to describe the weather as I was chatting with a friend. As a newcomer who is experiencing the four seasons for the first time, I was particularly proud of using a new term I’d just learned.

My friend turned to me and said, “you probably shouldn’t be saying that” (referring to Indian summer). I was surprised but was too shy to ask why. But it had me wondering – did I use the words wrong or did I describe the weather incorrectly?

It turns out, it’s not a politically correct term.

What does politically correct language mean?

“Politically correct language is based on the the idea that words shape our reality and so the philosophy of language behind it gives weight to words” (Ehlion Magazine).

To put it simply, words have power. They can change how we think, treat others, and eventually how we shape the world.

This is why it is important to avoid language (and actions) that insult or harm people, especially those who are already experiencing disadvantage or discrimination. These include those that show bias related to gender, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, abilities, or sexual orientation.

More than anything, it means using language that is respectful, inclusive and empowering. That’s why we now use “firefighter” or “police officer” instead of “firemen” or “policemen” in order to be gender-inclusive, or “person with disability” instead of “disabled” to change negative stereotypes.

It is using language that is respectful, inclusive and empowering.

Going back to the term “Indian summer,” I learned that it is politically incorrect because of its negative connotations about Indigenous Peoples. It can imply that Indians are late since the period comes late in summer, or that they are fake or phony since it’s a brief spell of warmth in an otherwise cold season. That’s why it’s not right to use it. (Incidentally, the correct term to use is “Indigenous Peoples” when referring to the first peoples of Canada. Not Indians).

What is political correctness? Mad English TV

Why is it important for newcomers to learn politically correct language?

Learning about and using politically correct language is important for everyone, not only newcomers. Politically incorrect terms can harm relationships and help perpetuate negative stereotypes.

This can be challenging for newcomers especially while we’re still learning the language. It’s like adding another layer of meaning while we’re still understanding the initial layer. It can be challenging, but what matters is that we try.

Keep in mind that being PC is all about being aware of using language that helps instead of harms. It simply means that you’re trying to be aware of the effects of your actions and words and learning how to be a better, kinder human being.

Sources: What exactly does it mean to be “politically correct’? Eve LE Blog; What’s the deal with political correctness? Reach Out .com; What is politically correct language? EHELION Magazine; Use these culturally offensive phrases, questions at your risk, Indigenous Corporate Training, Inc. Accessed December 9, 2020.

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Community Resources

Want to learn more politically correct words? Here’s a list of top 20 of the most Googled ones from ONGIG: The top 20 questions on politically correct terms (with answers)

Other guides:

Read What is cultural appropriation? And why is Blackface wrong? to expand you understanding of politically correct practices.

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