Worried About Being Politically Correct? STOP NOW!

A couple of weeks ago I posted a Golden Thread to you about “skunked words.”

I can’t believe the tremendous response this article provoked. My deepest appreciation to all of you who took the time to send me email.

The responses were divided between those of you who wanted to add to my list of skunked words and those who expressed distaste for having to be “politically correct.”

For a quick look back, skunked words are words whose meanings have changed enough so if you use one, your reader might not be sure of what you’re saying.

For example a word like “bimonthly” is a skunked word. Does this mean twice a month or once every two months? The meaning has shifted enough so it could mean both. For clarity’s sake, you’d never want to use it.

Other skunked words are those that through misunderstanding or misuse have developed a particular meaning that might offend someone. One such word is ‘oriental.’ Some people find the word offensive. To keep your reader from dismissing you because you’ve offended him, you wouldn’t use it to describe a person’s ethnicity.

Political correctness has no place in copywriting …

Back to the issue of political correctness – whatever that might mean. I have to agree with the people who wrote me expressing distaste for having to change what they say because of political correctness. As a copywriter, you should never worry about being politically correct … because of two important people.

When you write any type of copy for hire, you’re beholding to two people. The first is your client. You write according to his desires, his needs, and his direction.

The other person you answer to is your reader. So, regardless of your own political sensibilities, you have to write copy that matches his beliefs.

For example, a number of years ago, Agora published a newsletter called Bull. Its prospect universe was men from about 50 years old and up. It took a straight-ahead, macho stance in all its articles. Someone might even say it was “male-chauvinist.”

Very politically incorrect. So what! In fact, that was the focus and charm of the newsletter.

So, as a copywriter, if you wanted to succeed writing editorial or promotional copy for Bull, you had to be politically incorrect to satisfy both your client and your prospect.

But let’s say you’re writing for a (fictitious) newsletter called Women Up Rising. Its prospects are women who take a strong stance on women’s equality in the workplace and other similar issues.

You’d never want to adopt the same voice and perspective that you would with Bull. You’d never dream of using certain words in Women Up Rising you could safely use in Bull. (And vice versa). You wouldn’t use them because they could alienate your reader … and your client.

Some vague notion of political correctness has nothing to do with it.

If a word might smell, it does …

So, how does the concept of skunked words fit in here?

In my previous article I referred to a word that caused uproar in 1999. Washington D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams accepted the resignation of one of his staffers because the man had used a word that was misinterpreted as a racial slur.

The offending word is defined as “grudgingly mean about spending.” This word has no racially based roots, but it’s easily mistaken for a very offensive word. Because of that, I won’t use it here. I would never use it in my copywriting.

The reason I won’t use it isn’t because I feel constrained to toe a politically correct line. I won’t use it because it’s not worth possibly offending my reader. If I did use it – or one of the other skunked words like it – then one of my readers could legitimately ask me why I would use it when I knew it might offend, even for the wrong reason.

The bottom line is this: Don’t let some vague idea about ‘political correctness’ dictate what you say or the words you use to say it.

As a copywriter, always use words that will persuade and entice.

But never use words that might offend the only person who really matters in this business: Your prospect.

I’d love to hear your feelings on today’s topic. Write me at wnewman@awaionline.com and let me know.

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Published: April 15, 2013

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