Avoiding politically incorrect language difficult even for the most well-meaning

Published 1:05 pm Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Avoiding the use of politically incorrect language is difficult, as another president learned last week when he went on the Jay Leno show and made fun of his own ineptness at bowling.

Apparently trying to find language that would convey even to those not familiar with the game just how badly he bowls, President Barack Obama likened his game to that of someone competing in the Special Olympics, which are athletic competitions for those with mental and physical disabilities. Oops! Those sensitive to any apparent slight aimed at those competitors immediately took offense. To his credit, Obama realized quickly what he had done and apologized to the head of that organization.

Obama wasn’t the first president who used politically incorrect language in trying to make a point, and won’t be the last. His predecessor, President George W. Bush, was known for his politically incorrect usage of language. Among his more famous gaffes was one declaring that the war against terrorism was a “crusade.” This instantly inflamed Muslims because of the religious crusades of the Middle Ages when Christian Europe tried to conquer Jerusalem and other areas of religious significance to Christians in the Middle East after Islam had become the dominant religion of that region.

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Obama’s unintentional slight of the Special Olympics is not likely to be the last time he says something that is politically incorrect. Bush’s unintentional use of a term that would inflame even allies in the Muslim world certainly was not his last use of politically incorrect language.

The trouble with politically incorrect language is that it’s hard to remember or think of all the things that others might find insulting before making an off-hand comment, or even writing out a speech and trying carefully to avoid politically incorrect language.

We all have made politically incorrect statements, not just presidents and other politicians, though their politically incorrect use of words and phrases are the ones most noted.

Conveying information through words has almost reached the point that it’s impossible to communicate, especially using verbal imagery, without insulting someone. Even certain words have come to take on meanings that were never part of their meanings as originally formed. Take the terms “queer” and “gay” for instance. Both terms today are used almost exclusively as shorthand words, often as nouns when they were adjectives originally, to convey homosexuality and their use probably grew out of a desire by the original users to avoid being politically incorrect.

“Queer” originally meant “odd,” even very odd, and perhaps to heterosexuals, homosexuality is “queer.” “Gay” was a state of happiness. A person dare not use either term today as originally intended, especially when referring to another person, or group of people, without the likelihood, even probability, of being understood as calling the other person a homosexual. Even calling a situation “queer” or “gay” is likely to be understood by others only in sexual terms.

Reading literature from before the time these two words took on their current meanings without the knowledge that the words did not always mean what they mean today is likely to lead to some strange — I started to write “queer” — misunderstandings of what is being conveyed by the writer.

I am more disturbed by the destruction of words such as those, thus making their use politically incorrect in their original meanings, than I am by phrases such as those used by Obama and “crusade” used by Bush for they have had the impact of limiting the use of descriptive language. A person that is homosexual, a perfectly descriptive term, is homosexual, not “queer” or “gay.” I can vaguely understand how “queer” came to take on the meaning it has today, but “gay,” the misappropriation of that word really puzzles me.

Still, the whole business of taking phrases and words as insults when they were not intentionally used to be insulting, really bothers me. Language is meant to convey meaning, and in some cases the language can be intentionally used to insult while in others it is used purely for its descriptive value. To deliberately confuse the two usages, or even to limit their usages, is to censor and this nation is about free speech, not about censoring expression.