Happy families are all alike, but every generation is prudish in its own way. Since about the mid-’eighties—the term was first used in the New York Times in 1986, quoting a divinity student who used it as if it were readily familiar—my generation has been “politically correct,” which is our own way of being prudish. “Political correctness is a politicised version of good manners,” the philosopher Kenneth Minogue says in an interview, “offering power to the kind of meddlesome people who want to tell others how to behave” (h/t: Maverick Philosopher).
I wonder, though, if the more exact word is not etiquette. By themselves forbidden words are not immoral, after all, since there is no meaning (hence no offense against morality) without context. When my four-year-old son starts talking loudly in public about his “weiner,” I tell him not to use that word. “I have a penis,” he shouts. “You can’t use that word either,” I say—“not in public.” “What is ‘public’?” he asks. And I realize, with a sinking feeling, that I must instruct him in social appropriateness, not words.
Etiquette is the formal code of socially acceptable behavior, including verbal behavior. In an introduction to the second edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette (1922), Richard Duffy explains the word’s origin:
The older critic who is worried that a text is “really not acceptable” and sets out to Gribbenize it—or, for that matter, the younger critic who dismisses Shakespeare as a WASP, achieving the rare feat of combining historical ignorance with historical error—are doing something other than literary criticism. They are seeking entry into what Emily Post calls the Best Society, which is (in her words) an “association of gentlefolk, of which good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others, are the credentials by which society the world over recognizes its chosen members.”
I prefer the fellowship of less gentle folk, who are not particularly afraid of hurting others’ feelings if it means saying things exactly as they must be said.