There are many impolite expressions. In the European country I come from, using the (translation) of the word gypsy is considered rude, yet as far as I know Americans say the word openly. On the other hand, while the (translations of) words blind and deaf are considered OK where I live, Americans avoid them.

  • Gypsy ~ Romani people
  • blindness ~ impaired vision
  • deaf ~ hard of hearing

Sometimes I am not sure if the politically correct expression is real, or if it is a joke, for example

  • traffic accident ~ traffic incident or traffic collision

(source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=puK5CwThaq4)

Then some other are obvious jokes, like

  • poor ~ monetarily challenged
  • short ~ vertically challenged

What prompted me to ask this question is this alternative expression for an illegal immigrant which I heard yesterday for the first time.

  • illegal immigrant ~ unregistered inhabitant

What should a language learner know about political correctness, both regarding the vocabulary and the circumstances when it is important to speak this way?

  • 2
    I think this is a really interesting question. On one hand, the learner doesn't want their vocabulary to distract from what they are trying to say due to the tone of the word, and on the other hand, the politically correct terms can actually obfuscate the intended meaning and aren't necessarily widely used in all regions.
    – ColleenV
    Jan 2, 2015 at 17:45
  • 3
    A language learner should know that there is always an agenda behind the labels we use for people. Sometimes the agenda might be to stop using words that are perceived to be demeaning or reductive (e.g. "trash man" becomes "sanitation engineer", the "blind" become the "sight-impaired", people with "learning disabilities" become people with "special needs", etc) and sometimes the agenda is to promote a particular political view. Illegal alien, for example, was recently replaced with undocumented alien here in the US, in certain news outlets but not in others.
    – TimR
    Jan 2, 2015 at 17:45
  • @TRomano You are right, it should be undocumented, not unregistered. I remembered it wrong. I probably got it confused with registered partnership as a minced expression for gay/lesbian marriage.
    – user7610
    Jan 2, 2015 at 17:48
  • 7
    Veering off topic here, but I don't see registered partnership being used as a minced expression for same-sex marriage. It is the legal term for a legal status available to same sex partnerships in some states where gay marriage is prohibited. Registered partnerships are also available to and used by opposite sex couples in many states. Elderly couples, in particular, often have financial/tax/pension reasons for wanting to form a registered partnership without actually getting married. I am not trying to make any sort of socio-political point here - just a language observation.
    – Adam
    Jan 2, 2015 at 18:47
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    For what it's worth, I actually find "blind" and "deaf" to be perfectly fine and politically correct. To me "vision-impaired" is a more general term (it includes anyone with vision problems that cannot be fully mitigated using eyeglasses), and I think "hard of hearing" is actually mutually exclusive with "deaf": "hard of hearing" implies a lesser level of impairment. (Also, "hard of hearing" is a traditional term, not specifically PC. The PC analogue is "hearing-impaired", which covers both "hard of hearing" and "deaf".)
    – ruakh
    Jan 2, 2015 at 23:47

4 Answers 4


Political correctness is used when you do not want to say things that are generally known to be offensive to one or more groups. If you hear about it in the news media, consider it generally known. The types of groups involved can be

  • religious,
  • racial/ethnic,
  • political/ideological,
  • an advocate for something that is potentially controversial with respect to one of the above,
  • any combination of the above.

This is generally useful in communications of:

  • those who address those in public settings, where they do not have a close relationship with most of the people there,
  • those who are disseminating something meant for consumption by the general public,
  • those who are imposing some form of authority and wish to appear as though they are doing/have done that fairly,
  • those who want a way to be welcoming/friendly to someone of a different group than themselves.

Sometimes I am not sure if the politically correct expression is real, or if it is a joke, for example

If you hear a politically correct construct as part of a news story, or some form of corporate communications, you can assume it's real, in the sense that those in the above situations may use it.

What should a language learner know about political correctness, both regarding the vocabulary and the circumstances when it is important to speak this way?

This will vary according to the place your speech or written content will be heard/read. Specifics are hard to give.

Generally, the more you are around people you don't know, such that bad things would happen if they became offended, the more you should try to be politically correct.

  • Is "monetarily challenged" a real phrase or a joke, then?
    – user7610
    Jan 17, 2015 at 0:10
  • A joke. I believe it derives originally from "mentally challenged", being a term for someone with a mental disability (a far more polite version of "retarded" or "mentally retarded").
    – LawrenceC
    Jan 17, 2015 at 4:37

"Political correctness" is a term associated with conservative politics. It compares concerns about the use of insulting words to Stalinist political oppression. As such, the term itself is controversial and somewhat aggressive. Using it will make you sound like an asshole to a lot of people, so be careful. If you want to know more about the history, modern usage, and connotations of the term, you should probably ask on the Politics SE. Any more about politics would be off-topic here, so I will focus on the spirit of your question. Since I am an American, my answer will be unavoidably tied to U.S. culture and politics.

In general, the meaning behind your words is more important than your choice of words. There are no solid, objective rules for avoiding insult, but these guidelines might help:

  1. Avoid using terms that are insulting or degrading by nature. Racial slurs are a big category (e.g. "nigger" [black person], "spic" [Mexican], "kike" [Jew]). There are also insulting terms for other groups, such as "cunt" [woman] or "faggot" [homosexual]. A borderline example is "retarded" [intellectually disabled], which is a common insult that used to be a medical term.

"Gypsy" is often not considered insulting in the U.S. because there are so few Romani here, and we do not have a history of oppressing and murdering them like Europe does. "Illegal immigrant" and "undocumented immigrant" are a special case. To a large extent, which term you use depends on your opinions about the immigration debate in the United States.

  1. Be aware of diversity. In particular, remember that people are not always straight, white, male, Christian, and/or fully able. People outside of those categories have been ignored and marginalized for centuries, and for many people that treatment continues today. Do not assume that everyone who hears your words shares your background and experiences. Address your words to the broadest group of people possible unless there is a good reason not to.

There's nothing wrong (or "un-PC") about calling someone blind, but there are also many people who have poor vision but are not blind. Likewise, "hard of hearing" and "deaf" are not the same thing. Using the broader terms includes more people who may be interested in what you have to say.

  1. Avoid stereotyping members of a group, especially a group that you do not belong to. Making assumptions about people you don't know is rude, even if those assumptions are widely held.

  2. Listen to what other people have to say and take them seriously. If someone tells you that your words are insulting or degrading, try to understand them before you start arguing. Think about whether it's really necessary for you to use a certain word or phrase.

There are exceptions to all of these guidelines, but they should be enough to get you started. Language is tied to history, culture, and politics. If you want to learn more about this subject, you'll need to study those. If you have more questions about specific examples, I'll be happy to add them to my answer.

  • 3
    Just to clarify: Using any of the words in (1) is going to get you into serious trouble. Only use them if you are prepared for a fist fight.
    – gnasher729
    Jan 17, 2015 at 2:16
  • I want to add two insulting terms: Yankees (Americans), Limeys (British).
    – user7610
    Jan 23, 2015 at 15:44
  • 1
    "yankee" isn't insulting to americans. people from other countries may intend offense, but i have yet to meet an american who is insulted by it. they don't care. i feel like the same may be true for "limey" in britain.
    – user428517
    Apr 14, 2015 at 17:15
  • 1
    When used by people from other countries, "yankee" usually isn't insulting. However, people from the American south do not like being called yankees, since that term refers to people from the American north specifically.
    – Adam Haun
    Apr 14, 2015 at 18:46
  • @sgroves: "yankee" migh be insulting for Americans from the South (from former Confederate states), because that's how Confederates called Union soldiers back then. I remember one forum, where a (French) Canadian was making a friendly fun of a guy from Alabama by calling them "yanquee", with French accent, because in Montreal, most people see no difference between Birmingham (Alabama) and Binghamton (New York). To understand PC terms you need to dig deep into history. Jul 2, 2018 at 2:07

By the way, as a D/deaf person, the term "deaf" isn’t at all offensive. The Deaf community uses deaf and/or hard-of-hearing (HOH). American schools for the deaf often have that right in the title (e.g, Maryland School for the Deaf).

"Hearing-impaired" used to be the PC version of HOH but it switched and is now considered offensive by the deaf/HOH!

"Blind" is also acceptable, for that matter.

  • Exactly. And I may not have written this comment had I seen your post earlier. :)
    – user6951
    Jan 16, 2015 at 22:50

The example "traffic accident ~ traffic incident or traffic collision" has nothing to do with "political correctness". "Accident" has a strong connotation of being unexpected and unintentional, but most things that are often called "traffic accidents" are not accidental at all - for example a traffic incident caused by speeding, by alcohol, aggressive driving, or texting while driving is not accidental but the entirely predictable outcome of stupid behaviour, therefore an "incident". Also, "politically correct" terms usually replace an expression with a less harsh term, but "traffic incident" is harsher than "traffic accident".

Interesting is the comment saying "people with 'learning disabilities' become people with 'special needs'": "Learning disability" is already a euphemism. "Political correct" words tend to become "politically incorrect" after some time.

The word "retarded" that is mentioned in an answer is mostly used as a general and intentional insult. Similar to "idiot" which many years ago had a medical meaning, and nowadays is almost purely used as a general insult.

And as mentioned, the term "politically correct" itself is dangerous. You want to use language that doesn't offend people unintentionally, out of concern for the feelings of others and general niceness. (of course if you want to offend people, then you should know the right words to do that as well). But a "politically correct" person would be one who uses "politically correct" words not out of niceness or concern, but to be seen themselves as a person who uses the right words.

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