Political Correctness in the Early American Republic, or, How to Be 'Woke' in 1830

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The 21st Century abounds with arguments about 'political correctness', which is a catch-all term for language change intended to reflect increased social sensitivity. The arguments rage as to the wisdom of this or that particular change. Few, if any, would argue against Ms as a title these days. But is delicately referring to a short-statured person as 'vertically challenged' really necessary? Or is it snark? Keeping up with all the changes can make people tired and lead to debates, not all of them friendly.

What causes political correctness, anyway? Simply put, it's social change. In periods of great change in social awareness, speakers of a shared language will start altering their terminology. They usually do this for two reasons: to avoid offending others, and to signal their personal 'in-tune-ness' with the Zeitgeist. As is the case with the practice of any art, there are adroit uses of political correctness, and then there are howling bloopers. So it goes.

Reader, relax: this entry will not proceed to share awkward examples of 21st-century political correctness. Oh, no: we're going back in time, to the political correctness explosion of two hundred years ago. The United States in the 1830s provides us with a treasure trove of horrible examples to laugh at and make mock of. You'll enjoy this time-travel trip. Take your dictionaries along.

Why Did Political Correctness Flourish in the 1830s?

In the first place, nobody called it 'political correctness' back then. Instead, they talked about being 'refined' or 'improving themselves', or even just being part of 'polite society'. Remember: the United States as a nation really took shape in 1788, when the Constitution was ratified. In 1790, when the first census was taken in accordance with that constitution, half of the almost 4 million people were 16 or under. That means they were growing up with a new sensibility: that of republican citizens. They had to work to define themselves in terms of national identity. The next decades, between 1790 and the 1840s, are referred to as the 'early republic'. During this time, a lot of changes took place.

Observers noticed this rapid change at the time. Washington Irving – you probably know him from 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' – wrote a short story about it. The story, titled 'Rip van Winkle', is about a Dutch-American who gets drunk one night while bowling with some supernatural creatures. He sleeps through the War of Independence and wakes up to a world that's as strange to him as any science fiction dystopia.

Irving was from New York state. Visitors from overseas, at least the ones who spoke English, were even quicker to point out the oddities of the evolving American sensibility. One such observer was Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote Democracy in America, an 1835 study of the experiment in increased social equality. De Tocqueville thought he understood why there were so many language changes:

As the men who live there are frequently left to the efforts of their individual powers of mind, they are almost always a prey to doubt; and as their situation in life is forever changing, they are never held fast to any of their opinions by the certain tenure of their fortunes. Men living in democratic countries are, then, apt to entertain unsettled ideas, and they require loose expressions to convey them. As they never know whether the idea they express to-day will be appropriate to the new position they may occupy to-morrow, they naturally acquire a liking for abstract terms. An abstract term is like a box with a false bottom: you may put in it what ideas you please, and take them out again without being observed.

De Tocqueville was an intellectual, with an intellectual's interests. He was worried about the way Americans threw around terms like 'equality' as if they were quantities rather than comparisons. Equality with whom or what? Oh, just 'equality', it's an important concept. Compare this change in word usage to modern terms like 'relevance', or 'intersectionality', and you'll see what he meant. But de Tocqueville's political science is too boring for us: let's get to the fun stuff.

Crossing the Wilderness, and What Europeans Found There

Other tourists of the early republic, especially the British, loved to write home about the weirdness of it all. To them, it was like what it might be for you to journey through Central Asia: dangerous at times, inconvenient and possibly uncomfortable, and likely filled with culture-shock surprises. Just as you might be inclined to write jocularly about hiking in Kyrgyzstan. If you aren't politically correct yourself, you might also be tempted to make fun of the people you meet. The British weren't politically correct in this instance.

One traveller who loved to tell everyone about the odd Americans was Mrs Frances (Fanny) Trollope. In Domestic Manners of the Americans, 1832, she's our anthropologist on Mars.

But this was not the only point on which I found my notions of right and wrong utterly confounded; hardly a day passed in which I did not discover that something or other that I had been taught to consider lawful as eating, was held in abhorrence by those around me; many words to which I had never heard an objectionable meaning attached, were totally interdicted, and the strangest paraphrastic sentences substituted. I confess it struck me, that notwithstanding a general stiffness of manner, which I think must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, the Americans have imaginations that kindle with alarming facility…

A young German gentleman of perfectly good manners, once came to me greatly chagrined at having offended one of the principal families in the neighbourhood, by having pronounced the word 'corset' before the ladies of it. An old female friend had kindly overcome her own feelings so far as to mention to him the cause of the coolness he had remarked, and strongly advised his making an apology. He told me that he was perfectly well disposed to do so, but felt himself greatly at a loss how to word it.

Mrs (Ms) Trollope has put her finger on one aspect of the blossoming political correctness of the early republic: imagination. Americans were busy reimagining themselves. They wanted to be polite, refined, well-spoken. They eagerly learned new words – and made a lot of them up. They also examined their discourse carefully for possible sources of offence, and eradicated them ruthlessly. Sometimes, this led to unusual euphemisms, such as 'optical indecision' to describe squinting.

Frederick Marryat was a Royal Navy officer. He wrote this in his 1839 book, Diary in America:

When at Niagara Falls I was escorting a young lady with whom I was on friendly terms. She had been standing on a piece of rock, the better to view the scene, when she slipped down, and was evidently hurt by the fall: she had, in fact, grazed her shin. As she limped a little in walking home, I said, "Did you hurt your leg much?" She turned from me, evidently much shocked, or much offended, – and not being aware that I had committed any very heinous offence, I begged to know what was the reason of her displeasure. After some hesitation, she said that as she knew me well, she would tell me that the word leg was never mentioned before ladies. I apologised for my want of refinement, which was attributable to having been accustomed only to English society; and added, that as such articles must occasionally be referred to, even in the most polite circles in America, perhaps she would inform me by what name I might mention them without shocking the company. Her reply was, that the word limb was used; "nay," continued she, "I am not so particular as some people are, for I know those who always say limb of a table, or limb of a piano-forte."

It was getting to be hard to keep up with this kind of language, it seems. What made body parts such a minefield, anyway? And what else weren't you allowed to talk about?

What Couldn't You Talk About in 1830?

For one thing, you weren't allowed to swear. Swearing had always bothered the New England Puritans, but others, even Christians, were less easily offended. In the early republic, however, there were far more occasions where men and women came together in what was nervously called 'mixed company'. It just wasn't okay to swear in front of the women. (And yes, the women were busy pretending they didn't swear when the men weren't around. In fact, they didn't even know those words, so there.) Privately, people continued to curse. Publicly, they now substituted 'harmless' swears: 'gosh', 'darn', 'heck', even 'What the Sam Hill?' for more potent locutions.

Next, it was important to avoid mentioning sex in any form, vulgar or otherwise. Marriage became 'connubial bliss'. It was particularly important to avoid mentioning any body parts that might lead to, er…thoughts of sex. 'Legs' and 'arms' became 'limbs', even on furniture. Ankles, particularly on women, were a taboo subject. Mrs Trollope noticed this, too.

At Cincinnati there is a garden where the people go to eat ices, and to look at roses. For the preservation of the flowers, there is placed at the end of one of the walks a sign-post sort of daub, representing a Swiss peasant girl, holding in her hand a scroll, requesting that the roses might not be gathered. Unhappily for the artist, or for the proprietor, or for both, the petticoat of this figure was so short as to shew her ancles. The ladies saw, and shuddered; and it was formally intimated to the proprietor, that if he wished for the patronage of the ladies of Cincinnati, he must have the petticoat of this figure lengthened. The affrighted purveyor of ices sent off an express for the artist and his paint pot. He came, but unluckily not provided with any colour that would match the petticoat; the necessity, however, was too urgent for delay, and a flounce of blue was added to the petticoat of red, giving bright and shining evidence before all men of the immaculate delicacy of the Cincinnati ladies.

Domestic Manners of the Americans

There were worse horrors lurking in poultry. Somehow, even the most clueless became aware of the misuse of the word 'cockerel1'. An American male of the chicken persuasion now became a rooster for all time. You laugh, but if you speak English, your linguistic heritage has been tainted with this political poultry correctness. Do you prefer 'white meat' or 'dark meat' in your chicken dinner? (You can't say 'breast' or 'thigh'.) Or do you like a tasty 'drumstick'? Better not even think of legs in this context. Dinner could get problematic. So could your roof: it had better have a politically correct 'weathervane' on it. Beloved children's writer Louisa May Alcott dodged a bullet: her father changed the family name from Alcox, just to sound more respectable.

Yes, it got very silly. Here's a quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's novella Kavanagh (1849):

The new fashionable boarding-school begins next week. The prospectus has been sent to our house. One of the regulations is 'Young ladies are not allowed to cross their benders in school!' Papa says he never heard them called so before.

We guess you can figure out what 'benders' are supposed to be. Your 'understandings', your 'underpinners'. Your, er, 'lower limbs'. That's enough said.

What Was the Point of All This?

By looking at what words they changed, we can tell what these 'early American republicans' were concerned with. They made up new words and talked in what they imagined were 'intellectual' terms because they wanted to improve themselves. They avoided swearing and mentioning body parts because their more egalitarian society was welcoming women into more public settings. Unsure what would offend this strange species, the 'opposite' gender, they pussy-footed around the piano limbs. Eventually, they settled down, but not before more than one person had the vapours over the complexity of it all.

An English lady who had long kept a fashionable boarding-school in one of the Atlantic cities, told me that one of her earliest cares with every new comer, was the endeavour to substitute real delicacy for this affected precision of manner; among many anecdotes, she told me one of a young lady about fourteen, who on entering the receiving room, where she only expected to see a lady who had enquired for her, and finding a young man with her, put her hands before her eyes, and ran out of the room again, screaming "A man! a man! a man!"

On another occasion, one of the young ladies in going up stairs to the drawing-room, unfortunately met a boy of fourteen coming down, and her feelings were so violently agitated, that she stopped panting and sobbing, nor would pass on till the boy had swung himself up on the upper banisters, to leave the passage free.


Domestic Manners of the Americans
1This word will not be shortened here, to avoid offending this website's profanity filter.

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