But Is It Politically Correct?

“The notion of political correctness declares certain topics, certain expressions, even certain gestures, off-limits. What began as a crusade for civility has soured into a cause of conflict and even censorship.” – George Bush

My ruminations meander today because their scope is so broad. My thoughts regarding political correctness began simply enough. I was working on an assignment that explored the origins of Indian pudding. As I read through my notes, I stopped when I came to the expression Indian summer. Back in the day, we were taught that Indian summer referred to a warm spell that followed the first frost of autumn. I never for a moment considered it might be offensive to Native Americans, and thought it was a lovely way to describe the final flush of summer. Then I started to think. That’s always a mistake and it never fails to get me into trouble. I live in a liberal community where political correctness is taken seriously. Sometimes I, by extension, take it too seriously. I had no problem with the expression Indian pudding. It was a recognized dessert that’s been served in American homes for years, but for some reason the expression Indian summer made me uneasy. As it happened, I met with some local writers that day and shared my hesitation with them. Out came the iPads and before you know it, my research became a group project.

As it turns out, my definition of Indian summer was only half right. I correctly identified the weather conditions necessary for its occurrence, but I missed its date component. Seems a true Indian summer occurs only when a late warm spell follows a frost that occurs between 1st through the 20th of November. Similar weather conditions occur throughout the world but they are given other unique names. It’s known as “gypsy” or “poor man’s summer” in Bulgaria. In the mountainous regions of Europe it is called the “old women’s summer,” and in Slavic countries it is known as “women summer.” No explanation was given for these name variants, but I’d love to hear the story behind “old woman’s summer.” I, after all, have a vested interest.

Our initial research didn’t solve the issue of political correctness, though it gave us clues that helped resolve the issue. The first reference to Indian summer dated from 1778. It described, but did not explain, the phenomenon. According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the most likely explanation can be traced to settlers in New England who welcomed cold wintry weather because they could leave their stockades unarmed. They feared warmer weather would invite attack, and they coined the expression “Indian summer” to describe the weather conditions that might make them more vulnerable. Save for this supposition, we found no evidence that the expression was meant to defame Native Americans. So, unlike the expression “Indian giver,” “Indian summer” is politically correct to almost everyone. Despite that, the women in my group thought the expression should be avoided whenever possible, so I now have to find another way to poetically describe a spell of warm weather following a frost in November.

This exercise did, however, point out that we might be on the verge of becoming too politically correct. We all know how words can become racist, but I, for one, am not sure how a word can become derogatory or politically incorrect. I do know that once that happens, a new word will be found to replace it. Ironically, in time there is a chance that the new descriptor will also become politically incorrect as it did in the progression of crippled to handicapped to disabled. The word “lame” describes a condition as well as a behavior. Should it really be considered politically incorrect? While it might be fun, I won’t go near expressions like Polish sausage or Greek yogurt. I would, however, like the following offensive expression addressed. I want you to know that I am not old. I am not a senior citizen. I am chronologically advantaged. Got it? If you’re at all interested in other expressions that are politically incorrect and need revision, do read the list below. It will either outrage you or make you smile.

Black sheep – Outcast
“Guys” (when referring to a mixed group) – Friends; folks; group
Oriental (when referring to people) – Asian
Manhole – Utility hole
Chairman – Chair
Gifted children – Advanced learners
Acting blonde – No alternative
Half-breed – Multi-ethnic
Blacklisted – Banned
“Manning” the project – Staffing the project

In the meantime, the teams at the University of Oregon are called the “Ducks,” and an industry has sprung up selling paraphernalia associated with the teams. We are on the horns of a dilemma here. Should ducks – the ones that quack – ever find an activist who finds the use of their name offensive – the industry will be brought to its knees. Oh, the humanity.

7 thoughts on “But Is It Politically Correct?

  1. Indian Summer in Baltimore was used whenever a sudden surge in temps occurred in late Fall or Winter. With climate change, who knows what time of year this will be applicable. We may invent a totally different word to describe this phenomenon.

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  2. Along those lines Mary, I could never understand why the Stanford Indians had to change their name to the Stanford Cardinals, but the Washington Redskins move right along. Maybe it depends on which side of the country you live!

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  3. Goodness, I get in trouble, too, when the brain clicks “on.” I grew up in a household where every ethnicity except WASP’s were routinely bashed and derided (shameful, but true). You’ll be happy to know that none of my parents’ five children chose to follow this path! I do, however, get tripped up on ideas and words like Indian Summer — to me those two words sound so delightful, but I’d hate to think they were offensive to anyone. “Nice and warm” is a lame substitute … oops!

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  4. I, for one, think that being sensitive and educated about how some words/expressions hurt others is progress. Growing one’s awareness can require a bit of flexibility and work. So be it. If we can’t grow as human beings, what are we here for?

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