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Friday, 17 May, 2002, 11:22 GMT 12:22 UK
Has political correctness gone mad?
Home Office minister John Denham has been criticised by the police for using the phrase "nitty gritty" because of race relations rules.
Mr Denham used the phrase during a debate at the Police Federation conference in Bournemouth.
He was told that police officers could face disciplinary charges for saying "nitty gritty" because it dates from the slavery era.
Some rank-and-file officers say the rules about language have become "a minefield" and have made them inhibited in doing their job.
Has political correctness gone mad? How much care should be taken by police over language?
This Talking Point has now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
Com'on folks! This political correctness has gone too far. It's downright silly! I have not heard no read anywhere that the term "nitty gritty" has slave origin. If it does, so what? It's interesting to note that it's usually not minorities who raise this issue of PC, but politicians who want to exploit the situation. As a black female college professor, I rightly encourage my students to freely engage in discussion of issues/topics that others might consider PC, and why not? We live in a democratic society, a free world that others envy. If we can't speak freely about issues, be they immigration, education standards, or other so-called "hot button" topics, then move to those countries where the leadership controls speech, movement, assembly, etc. Free speech must reign!
We recognise bullying as the most unpleasant
form of physical abuse by someone who wants
to wield power of some sort over someone else.
Political correctness is the most insidious form
of bullying where the bullies attack the psychology
and thinking of another for their own satisfaction,
even though something is said in complete innocence
(and ignorance) of its origins.
We should recognise the politically correct brigade
as nothing but bullies in another form, trying to
twist the minds of others to satisfy their own
What is more offensive to black people? The words "nitty gritty" or the poverty stricken schools and estates they are disproportionately brought up in. PC is what politicians hide behind when they have no idea to solve the real issues.
Political Correctness: Only saying what one is allowed to say - by whom? Didn't the Nazis practise something like it, or the Soviet Union especially under Stalin. Double talk, double think results in lies and deception. Sweep away PC once and for all. By the way I am a social worker.
King Charles I is reported to have described St Paul's as "awful, artificial and amusing", meaning it filled him with awe, displayed great artisanship and was pleasing to look upon. Our language is dynamic, changing and alive. PC harping back to historical meanings, is stagnating and killing the greatest language in the world. Stop this nonsense now!
It's interesting that almost every poster here thinks that these kinds of regulations are completely insane, and yet they exist. Has anyone asked just why it is that in Britain today, faceless bureaucrats, whose names aren't even known, apparently have the power to impose legal restrains on the speech of other citizens. And they can apparently do this with any law being passed through Parliament, and in complete defiance of the will of the vast majority, without any form of accountability.
Who are these people who have nothing better to do with their time than analyze and then criticise every word a public (or even semi-private) figure says? What a pity these do-gooders can't get a life, or even an occupation where they could actually do some good? Almost every phrase that is in current usage today has some kind of questionable background and how many of the nursery rhymes these same critics teach their children had less than salubrious origins!
It's funny how the ethnic minority communities never come out and say they are offended. It's always other people who say that they should be offended, when we usually are not.
As long as political correctness stands for self-examination, then it is nothing short of a duty in a responsible society. Where it amounts to the repression of freedom of thought, it is very much the opposite.
I think you're going mad in the West with political correctness. Every human being has good and bad, cruel and kind intentions in his mind. And you can't change that.
I am absolutely amazed that we are still using terms that offend others. It is high time that we realised that using words such as 'slavery' or any discussion around the topic, simply panders to the inner desire of human beings to assert their views over others. We all need to be fair minded and control our natural instincts for self preservation, free from external threat. Perhaps the police could try this line of thought.
PC = "Political Correctness"?
I thought it meant "Poor Caucasians"!
I have just read all the letters, most of which I fully agree with, and I have just realised that I either shouldn't exist or will be banned soon!
I am proud to be white, Welsh, a practising Christian. I speak my mind, tell jokes, have strong views on certain issues, have black friends, and see nothing wrong in Enid Blyton books, told my kids all the nursery rhymes, believe that Jesus was a male and that God is a Heavenly Father! The nitty-gritty is that I am probably quite a good egg, I see things as black and white, I call a spade a spade, and that there are millions of UK residents like me!
John, Wales UK
I don't think we have gone mad, I think this has been happening for some time. I do hope he goes as this is one way the government can show it is practicing what it preaches.
What I can't understand is that genuinely offensive, abusive swearwords are used day in, day out in ordinary conversation and on the television - and nobody seems to care. But if someone uses an innocent phrase like 'nitty gritty' or 'good egg' we are all supposed to be horrified on behalf of our ethnic communities! I am fed up with seemingly everybody using offensive language, but as I am a deeply untrendy middle-class white English Tory voter.
"Political Correctness" is mad!
Political correctness has certainly become the thing it was supposed to get rid of. Whilst I think that derogatory names and stereotypes must be continually frowned upon, being denounced for using 'nitty-gritty' or even 'niggardly' is absurd. We do not tolerate freedom of speech being hijacked by right-wing racist extremists, so for the politically correct to scream 'racist' at every turn gives the far-right the excuse they need to damn the PC left as thought police and the real fascists. The fight against racism must not be diluted by petty arguments over inoffensive words.
Dan Cook, United Kingdom
People in public service should be careful not to offend any members of the public that they serve, within reason. There are obvious words and phrases that are offensive, and some that imply a negative value (e.g. metaphors like black sheep or black mark) which are probably best avoided however innocent the intentions of the person using them. I think though that banning the use of a word that has no obvious racial links, no negative value and which I am sure 99% of people are totally unaware of its historical origins is probably outside the realms of reasonableness. We've been told that we shouldn't use the phrase 'brainstorming' to describe thought-gathering meetings. I don't know what we're supposed to say instead. Apparently it is a phrase sometimes used by people with epilepsy to describe what happens when they have a fit. Why anyone should find it offensive to use it in a different context for a totally different and value-free meaning I really don't understand.
Incidentally, we recently had a talk from our equalities officer and it seems that the phrase 'political correctness' is no longer politically correct as it is usually used to ridicule those words and phrases likely to cause offence. If you describe something as politically incorrect no-one will take you seriously so it shouldn't be used.
I agree with Mark. Most of the population let this complete nonsense wash over them. However, I would be interested to see the person(s) responsible for the decision, perhaps on TV explaining and defending firstly, their reasoning for this and secondly how they justify their job. Will they hide in obscurity forever? Faceless and nameless. Come on lets us see who you are!!!!
As a serving police officer I agree wholeheartedly that our job is now a mine field. How are you supposed to keep track of what you can say and what you can't? As for the example at hand, do you honestly think anyone would say the words "nitty gritty" with the intention of being racist? Of course not, it is a matter of the intent of the person speaking not the words that are spoken.
Richard Lewis, Huntington Station, USA
I do remember from my time in the Armed Forces when I was an instructor in electronics when we were no longer allowed to use the word "blackboard". A whiteboard was fine as was chalkboard. It seems one way traffic these days.
I think political correctness has gone mad! The phrase 'nitty gritty' means something entirely different these days as to what it did back then. Why are we paying our police force to raise senseless arguments like these? Haven't they got real criminals to worry about?
"Golly gosh", the country is being "blackmailed", immigration statistics are being "whitewashed" by the trendy liberal/left "camp". All very "queer" to me!
A search on on-line dictionaries of etymology produces either "origin unknown" or, for example, "knitty-gritty, Amer.Eng, said to have been chiefly used by black jazz musicians, perhaps ult. from nit and grits 'finely ground corn'."
I can't really see how this could be construed as being offensive.
Of course political correctness has gone too far. Apart from costing the tax payer lots of money, it has been responsible, as much as any other factor, for badly damaging the morale of the Metropolitan Police. If more politicians would care to participate in the real world, they would understand the extent of resentment amongst most ordinary people, of differing extraction and political persuasion. It is now time to question the existence of those bodies that have perpetuated this nonsense, starting with the Race Relations Industry.
I don't have a problem with losing words and phrases that have offensive meanings. It does get ridiculous when everybody has to look up the words in dictionaries to find out if there might be some historical basis for offence.
A lot of the criticism of PC madness is that the bans do not actually fix anything. It comes back to the old committee idea of 'we can't solve the problem but we've found a new way of describing it'.
Take any piece of slang and you can easily get ten different definitions of its origin. It's also quite likely that none of these ten will be correct. Consequently the only people who will be offended by the use of phrases such as "nitty gritty" and "good egg" are those who set out to look for insult where none is intended and we end up in a situation where something like "Baa Baa Black Sheep", surely the original socialist nursery rhyme that complains about the unequal distribution of wealth, hammered by ignorant race campaigners for incorrectly perceived slights. The only thing I find truly amazing is that people actually still pay attention to such tripe which is surely becoming racially divisive itself.
Who, except language students and university professors, would know the origins of a phrase like nitty gritty anyway? This is definitely a case of political correctness gone mad. Instances like this really make me angry. It was the same when the Enid Blyton books, that we have grown up with, were banned. Remember the joke about the Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman? Sorry, I can't tell you that one as it is racist. Aren't we becoming a really sad society when all we have to worry about is which phrase is politically correct or not.
I remember a time when the British were admired all over the world for their sense of humour. Now we are rapidly becoming the laughing stock of the world. I assume that our police forces have no real issues to worry about though. Oh and by the way, there is a drive to recruit more ethnic minorities into our police force. We will probably have to send them to university first to teach them the intricacies of the English language because, it seems, even Englishmen don't know what is right and what is wrong.
Although political correctness is designed to protect vulnerable people it is in fact breeding intolerance and we are getting to the stage where you soon won't be able to open your mouth in your own home. The police should be able to concentrate on crime rather than wasting tax payers money policing off the cuff remarks people make.
Will we be punished for using the phrase 'rule of thumb' which dates back to a law that said you could not beat your wife with any implement thicker than a thumb width? PC has gone too far.
As a white, heterosexual, working, able-bodied male I'd like to take this opportunity to apologise to anyone who I've offended by simply being me.
It seems those in power will not be happy until they have dismantled the very fabric of our society piece by piece by enforcing such insane political correctness upon us all. Humour is fast becoming illegal, what's next? The English language banned because it has no place in modern Britain? Or maybe ban Christmas because of its religious roots? Pandering to the whines and moans of every individual can never work and only create further tensions. It must cease now!
The rise of anti-immigration parties in Europe has been fuelled by an inability of the main parties to tackle these issues for fear of being politically incorrect. The level of outcry about John Denham's comment is hardly going to change this trend.
Not has it gone mad. Has it ever been sane? Political Correctness is the 20th and 21st Centuries form of mental Puritanism dictated by self interested parties.
Political correctness has indeed gone mad. It's well out of control and, to my mind, should be checked as quickly as possible. The sad bit is that being 'PC' only seems to address appearances, what comes out of your mouth more often than not. It's not usually this which is at the root of society's problems. Rather, it's bigoted attitudes and a lack of knowledge. Let's move all the energy behind this PC paranoia into making ourselves aware of the true issues behind race, religion etc, all of society's issues in fact. What better place to start than the police?
Steve Wehrle, UK
The absurd example of "nitty gritty" for instance (why not ban the word slavery?) shows that political correctness has gone mad. The police, indeed everyone, should stop this nonsense, and hopefully within a short time the remaining few inflicted with this linguistic insanity can be cured in the appropriate psychiatric clinic.
I think some people use issues like this, and the rather synthetic "anger" they generate, as an attention-seeking device. I would be the first to feel irritated at the use of language which was deliberately and openly intended to be derogatory. However, when any connection with racism has long been forgotten by most people, no-one should be entitled to try to make a big issue out of some obscure and tortuous connection with racism. Are we all supposed to be etymologists and to know the exact derivation of every word we use? If so, things will go a bit quiet for a while.
This IS yet another manifestation of political correctness gone mad. Unless some semblance of sanity is restored to the everyday lives of the British people there will be a huge backlash. There is little chance of this government addressing these anomalies; they are too busy pandering to vocal fringe groups. How we need a politician of the calibre of Pim Fortuyn to emerge from the crowd and set us free from this liberal nonsense.
How absolutely pathetic!
In my Concise Oxford Dictionary it says:-
"nitty-gritty n. informal - the most important aspects or practical details of a matter. - ORIGIN 1960's: of unknown origin."
So exactly what connotation to the slave trade does that have?
Ridiculous. When someone is trying to get on with their job and is constantly coming up against this sort of nonsense is it any wonder this country has problems recruiting teachers and nurses. Why don't we all just not speak at all because when the 'I'm so offended' brigade is out in force we've got no chance.
This was the subject of a recent survey by a top HR Newspaper. They found that it did not refer to Slave Ships, but that the term had been hijacked and used as such by pro PC groups.
Once again it is an example of how normal terms cannot be used anymore thanks to the PC mob and adds fuel to the extremist's fire.
Now i know "nitty gritty" is politically incorrect I shall go out of my way to say it at least once a day.
Don't talk about people being denigrated. Think of the origin of the word: obviously racially-demeaning.
Yes, PC has gone too far. And I for one refuse to ordered not to use certain words or expressions. When I write, I do so with care, choosing the words I use to convey precise meaning. I also take care to understand the etymology of those words to ensure that my meaning is not ambiguous. I trust my own judgement above that of the "thought police" in my writing .
There is no such thing as positive discrimination: ALL discrimination disadvantages some one.
Only a small proportion of the population pay any real attention to this sort of stuff. The rest of us get on with our lives as normal, without needing to bother to much about what we say, or what others are saying. Thank our lucky stars for that!
M. Moran, how dare you talk about a "Big Brother" society! What the PC lobby want is a "Differently Sized Sibling" society.
Offence is a self induced malady. If you take exception to another person's phraseology then that is a problem you have incurred upon yourself and it is up to you to get over it. More to the point, where does the authority and democratic mandate come from, to declare such limitations on language? In Orwell's 1984, a restrictive use of language was used to control the ability of people to think for themselves. It appears that it is the Left who are intent on creating a 'Big Brother' society after all.
Yes, it's all gone too far. It's frustrating to be constantly wondering what you can and can't say.
Being unable to say what people think in their own away is against the freedom to speak and has ultimately caused the racial problems we have now. The restrictions that have been caused by Political Correctness have prevented a proper debate from being held.
For example, some schools are being "swamped" by asylum seekers, why is there such an uproar when the truth is told?
These phrases have been in use for decades. No one complained then, so why should they now? The police have to tiptoe on a minefield of eggshells to avoid being called "racist" at any possible juncture. This is just another in the long line of stupid PC (that's political correctness) concessions.
Power hungry politicians are '10 a penny' - deport them!
Jeremy Cedenio, UK/Bermuda
Of course political correctness has gone mad. Anyone who hasn't realised this must be living in some distant passed. Political correctness has ruined this country, and the rights of the people within it. Thanks to political correctness, we can't say what we want, defend ourselves, express our true feelings, or even do what we want with our lives. I think some radical rethinking is necessary, but the government will soon cover this up and forget about it.
Which sad muppet actually knew that "nitty gritty" dated back to the slavery era? God, oh sorry I shouldn't say that as it's probably politically incorrect to use "God" as it doesn't speak to all faiths, society is getting quite pathetic.
How far do we go back in history to find a no-no word? Maybe we should never use the word gladiatorial as that harks back 2000 years to the Roman Empire and gladiators were usually slaves.
Nick of England says it all.
We could research, and probably find thousands of words and phrases, which could offend!!!
If "nitty gritty" is such an offensive phrase pray ask Gladys Knight what she thought about it when she sang a song entitled "The Nitty Gritty", likewise Tina Turner. This is do-gooding, liberal nonsense as usual and whilst the Met are right to give the Home Office a taste of its own multi-cultural medicine, let's cut the PC rubbish, get back to reality, and let the police do their job without fear of racist accusations at every turn.
These have increasingly become times of "reverse racism" in most of the "western world". The white European, and particularly if labelled Protestant, has become the victim, without recourse or defence, against allegations by other races and affinities. I have never seen it as difficult, in 48 years of life, for a white person to form good, strong, social relations with persons from other races. Similarly as to cultural intermingling, where the only forms of intermingling are increasingly attempts by other groups at violent conversion rather than sharing differences and mutual appreciation. Those trends against European culture and against Caucasians need to be countered and strongly countered before it worsens for everyone. It used to be easier and better for all of us, but conquest oriented mentalities have brought deterioration and reduction of possibilities.
Clearly it's not a good thing to use language that you know will offend someone, but this is ridiculous! Stupidity like this detracts from the real issues of racism that still afflict parts of our society.
If it was a racist phrase, then it would be fair to insist that the police don't use it. It isn't though - lexicographers don't know where it came from, and don't have any reason to think that it's got any racist bent.
Yes and it's not the ethnic minorities who are to blame, it's the white majority who started this in the first place. Do the police seriously have nothing better than to check up on the origin of the language? By going too far the movement is devaluing the useful steps already been taken.
This is absolutely crazy, the English language is a hybrid, taking phrases and words from many sources. Let us get back to common sense (or is common politically incorrect as it alludes to poor people?)
I was unaware that the police are dissuaded from using this phrase, I was also unaware that this phrase has racial connotations (even thought it appears that experts argue that point).
I was aware however, that this expression was a good way to describe the way in which people can move from a high-level view of a problem/issue to a more fundamental view, and with this new level of detail, probably only look at a specific bit of the problem.
This is a phrase that I and others around me have used, usually when we get tired of constantly 'drilling-down' (which no doubt is offensive to children because years and years ago before any of us were born, 7 year olds were sent down coal mines).
Surely what is important is what words mean when they are said. Apart from the fact that any word can take on a new meaning through time, e.g. gay, even clearly defined words can take on new meaning when said in a certain context or with a simple shift in emphasis. Hopefully, this will be realised and the PC Brigade can give us all a break, realising that language is a fluid thing that evolves, and having been force-fed Shakespeare at school - thank god! (Sorry to all atheist readers).
The police, like every citizen, should be able to use the language they are comfortable with provided it is not deliberately degrading or derogatory to any party. Words and phrases used in one culture or scenario are not always acceptable to another, but this is where understanding and acceptance have to prevail.
Leigh, USA (UK origin)
Political correctness has stifled any open debate over what should be done about the many thousands of bogus asylum seekers migrants who are entering the UK via the channel tunnel. Anyone who dares to suggest that they should be deported is branded a racist. It is safer to keep your mouth shut and keep on paying your taxes.
Political correctness has indeed gone mad. There's far to much appeasement of minorities or religions going on. So much so that the workings of government are grinding to a halt.
Its insane...there's far too many lentil eating, sandal wearing, meat avoiding, soft touch do-gooders in positions of power for my liking. The Police don't get adequate recognition for the job they do without having to avoid using terms whose origin is lost on 99.9% of the population.
The police should be able to say what they want, when they want, as long as they are left in peace to get on with their jobs! They are not ambassadors for the nation!
It is ruining our lives in this country and I just wish that those in power would stand up to it one day and start the backlash. Has political correctness gone mad? When was it ever sane?!??
It's just this sort of dictatorial pedantry that will further the cause of the likes of Le Pen who will be seen as the only way of defending the ordinary people as they try to honestly go about their daily lives, freely speaking their own language and living according to their own customs.
So, 'nitty gritty' has its roots in slavery; that doesn't make it a racist term and I doubt anyone is genuinely offended by it. This does not affect how we feel about slavery - it just shows us how language is made rich by assuming words from the past into day to day lingo.
David Moran, Scotland/Australia
Languages change over time. Words and phrases develop new senses and shed old ones. Even if the phrase's origin in slavery can be firmly established, there is no linguistic reason why a weakened transferred sense of "nitty-gritty", meaning "basic elements or considerations (of something)", cannot exist two centuries later without giving offence. How many people were even aware of the etymology before this scandal? This is an example of normal linguistic change and should not cause anxiety.
It's ridiculous! Has the world gone mad? How many people knew about the origins of these words before now? Not many I think. Surely these people have better things to do, like fighting crime!
Political correctness has not only gone mad, it's been put into a natty white coat and locked up in a room with bouncy walls.
Its time all forms of PC were banned. If politicians etc have time to make rules up about what words can and cant be used then they are not working enough at what they should be doing.
Its no wonder the country is getting into the state it is.
Has the world gone mad?
No wonder that the BNP and other right-wing groups can capitalize on the amazement and indignation of the majority British public when things like this happen. When will it all end?
Yes, PC has gone mad. We (The British) are defined by many things, one of which is our language. Apart from obvious offensive names relating to colour of skin etc. we should be able to use our language freely in situations where we need to get a point across. All this PC stuff is deviating the focus of our attention away from much more important issues and if a minority feel they have to justify their existence by complaining about certain words or phrases then maybe they should re-assess their situation and get on with something much more worthwhile and important. Golly gosh, that was a mouthful!
What sort of Nobel prize-winning linguistic historians are we all supposed to be to know that "nitty gritty" dates from slavery?!
Perhaps I should consult the books before I next utter the words "stroll on!" or "that's life!".
Of course political correctness is out of control. I hope this restriction on the freedom of speech will result in a backlash against the PC brigade. It will serve the PC right if the pendulum swings completely back the other way.
As we've seen recently, academics can't write articles and people can't take an opposing view to immigration and multiculturalism without being shouted down as racist. What we have is a form of Macarthyism. It's got to stop.
In reply to James Crosby (Telford UK)I'd just like to point out that you have offended me many times simply by being you, and I very much appreciate your apology.
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