Back around 1985, the Canadian Association for the Mentally Retarded announced it had changed its name.
Suddenly, it wanted to be known as the Canadian Association for Community Living.
The notification provoked an editorial argument at the Ottawa Citizen, where I was working at the time.
The managing editor said the new title was meaningless, given that just about everybody lives in a community. Several journalists, me included, agreed.
- CBC Forum: Why the backlash against political correctness?
- Trump won't support Cruz if he's nominee, going back on pledge
It seemed prissy, euphemistic; certainly not a term that belonged in a publication whose job was to give people the straight goods.
Others around the newspaper's meeting table — including an editor with a severely handicapped child —argued it was a reasonable attempt to avoid stigmatizing those with intellectual disabilities.
We didn't know it then, but the concept we were discussing would eventually evolve into a pejorative term, and become one of the most potent issues in this current U.S. presidential election.
American politicians nowadays, especially Republicans, and most especially Donald Trump, regularly rant about "political correctness."
For Trump, it's become an issue with a huge payoff, and name-calling has become his principal political weapon.
His opponents are boring, he says. Or liars, or squirts, or, if they are women, ugly or shrill or menstruating.
Anything that requires thought, or nuance, or sensitivity — like, say, the insistence of Democrats that not all of America's millions of Muslims are terrorists — is dismissed as more tiresome political correctness.
Trump's intellectual soulmate, Sarah Palin, stood beside him a while back and portrayed political correctness as the force threatening America's very well-being. Employing a not very subtle analogy, she called it a "suicide vest."
Meanwhile, just the other night, on CNN, a group of conservative women in Arizona struggled to articulate why they all support Trump, even though he's described women as pigs, dogs and fat slobs.
One of them suddenly blurted out: "Because he's not politically correct!"
And there it is, probably the main reason Trump tops his party's polls: his anachronistic willingness, even eagerness, to offend.
Spigot of resentment
There is no question that in his campaign Trump has unclogged a rich spigot of resentment. People have bottled it up for years, and here he is telling them it's OK to vent.
A poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University last fall asked respondents whether "a big problem this country has is being politically correct."
Eighty one per cent of Republicans who responded agreed. As did 62 per cent of Democrats, and 68 per cent of independents.
The reason for that is probably not so much voters' hunger for insults, but a perception that public discourse is being taken over by censorious scolds who decry anyone who refuses to adopt their sometimes tortured neologisms, waves of which seem to appear every year, especially at universities.
A lot of it, of course, is just stuff that melts away in the real world. Concepts like micro-aggressions, or debates over which bathrooms transgendered or "non-binary" people should use; or things like trigger words, safe spaces and anything that whiffs of cultural imitation.
But there has also been a quickness to dismiss anyone resisting such ideas as racist or sexist or worse.
So judgmental have some progressives become that even President Barack Obama has chided them for their seeming eagerness to shut down other peoples' speech.
At the same time, though, the president warned that being against political correctness seems to have become "an excuse just to say offensive things or to lie out loud."
A cruder time
In retrospect, it was pretty understandable why the Association for the Mentally Retarded wanted to change its name; as late as the 1970s, tabloid newspapers were using "retard" as a noun, sometimes in headlines.
People in wheelchairs were routinely described in the mainstream media as "cripples."
It was a cruder time. You could smoke or drink at your desk, and to hell with anyone that was offended by that.
When Joe Clark became prime minister in 1979, his wife's decision to be called by her name, Maureen McTeer, rather than Maureen Clark, was greeted with a loud media snark.
Feminists were ridiculed for desiring an honorific that did not denote marriage status.
Politicians, seeking to characterize female opponents as radical "bra-burners," (remember that?) would linger on "Ms," pronouncing it "Mizzzzzzzzz." As in "MIZZZZ McTeer."
Then, time passed.
Today, even the most cantankerously Luddite conservatives barely notice "Ms" in a title. Or that a woman's surname might be different from her husband's.
A slew of offensive words have long since been replaced, and just about no one thinks they were ever a good idea.
(For a while, the Citizen accepted the Association for Community Living title, but often added "which is an organization that advocates for the mentally retarded." Today, that qualification has disappeared.)
Terms that once seemed precious or unwieldy, like "LGBT," are now norms. "Queer" has actually transmogrified from insult to neutral descriptor.
Anyway, the point is that political correctness is often just early-onset politeness.
Language and attitudes move on relentlessly. Push change too hard and you sound preachy; refuse to accept any change, and you start to sound like a crank.
Some of the words and terms that drive Trump's supporters to vote for him in the here and now will almost surely disappear within a few election cycles, defeated by common sense.
Others will simply melt into the beige under-fabric of the language.
But this much is certain: Donald Trump, now regarded as either a boor or a truth-teller, will be seen 30 years or so from now as … well, you can probably imagine.