Linguapress Advanced level English
Advanced level reading resources Intermediate reading resources English grammar online Language games and puzzles
Linguapress - Advanced English

Advanced level English 


A Rose by any other Name...

Shakespeare and "Political Correctness"

WITH AUDIO: Click to open/close audio player then hit the ► play button

What's in a name? Or a word?  Some words have many meanings, others can be used with different values attached to them. But as Shakespeare pointed out, changing the word you use does not change the object or idea that it refers to.

A rose 
When it comes to words and meanings, no-one has mastered the English language better than William Shakespeare. Although old Bill died over 400 years ago, he knew what he was talking about. Hundreds of his words of wisdom have become proverbs in their own right. Simple expressions, very often, like these two lines from Romeo and Juliet:
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet.
But did the Bard get it all wrong? Was he really just unwittingly consolidating an ideology, expressing the domination of DWEM's (Dead, White, European Males) over language and culture?
    In the name of "political correctness", some have said so – and in doing so, have provoked the anger of others who do not share their views. In recent years, particularly in the USA, the spread of political correctness has been denounced as an attack on free speech.
    The idea behind "P.C." is that some words offend people, and should be avoided. While avoiding offensive vocabulary is, in itself, is an excellent principle, the excesses it has led to, notably on university campuses, have been counterproductive, bringing the whole idea into derision. A lot of people – not just political conservatives – fear that political correctness on campuses, in the media, and in intellectual circles is a serious threat to freedom of thought.
    Opponents of P.C. claim that it defies the First Amend­ment to the Ameri­can Con­stitution, guaran­teeing free­dom of speech and ideas. For example, a leading Cali­fornia newspaper was rebuked for restricting free speech, when it circulated a list of "unacceptable" vocabu­lary to journalists. In an absurd case in New York, a famous English brass band was asked to change its name before playing in a concert. Concert organisers said that the name Blackdykes Brass Band could offend, because in Ameri­can slang "black dykes" could mean "Afro-American lesbians". Blackdykes in this case is really the name of a mining village in the North of England, where the band comes from. Black refers to the coal-coloured earth, and dyke is an old English word meaning ditch or barrier, like dijk in Dutch or digue in French !  One wonders what would happen if an American museum advertised an exhibition of paintings by the great Anglo Flemish artist Van Dyke, whose works hang in the world's top art galleries, including New York, Chicago and the National Gallery in Washington ! Now a van is a van, and a dyke is a ..... ?
        Originally, a "P.C." speaker was just someone who avoided using offensive, discriminating or sexist language; words like chairman were replaced by neutral terms like chair or chair­person,  words which are now well accepted in the English language. But when or­dinary words such as deaf were outlawed (aurally chal­leged was invented as a eu­phemism), many people agreed that things had gone too far! Though "deaf" and "dumb" can be used as abuse when refering to someone who can hear and speak normally... (Well Homer Simpson is called the dumbest man on the planet, but he can speak, sort of)  they have no insulting overtones when refering to a person who cannot do so; calling someone aurally challenged in no way reduces his handicap; on the contrary, as a longer expression than deaf, it draws attention to the disability and may sound deliberately facetious.
    Political correctness is not just an American phenomenon; there was a case where (according to some newspapers) a headteacher in Lon­don caused a scandal by refusing to take her pupils to see Romeo and Juliet, because, she claimed, it was too openly heterosexual, (and thus dis­criminated against homosexuals and les­bians). Maybe she also disagreed with the line about the rose......
    And talking of Shakespeare again .... 200 years ago a famous En­glishman called Thomas Bowdler rewrote Shake­speare's works, chang­ing all the vo­cabulary which he consid­ered could not "with propriety be read aloud in a family". No offensive words, no embracing, no de­bauchery. Bowdler gave his name to a new word in the English lan­guage: to bowdlerize.
    No-one today (and least of all a pro­gressive intel­lectual) would dream of recom­mending the bowdlerized version of Shake­speare; yet in his way, Bowdler was only be­ing politically correct, by the standards of his time.

  More on Shakespeare : Shakespeare 400 years on


Bard: poet - unwittingly: without realising it - be counterproductive: produce a result which is the opposite of the result desired - derision: ridicule - defy: go against - brass band: musical ensemble with trumpets, trombones etc. - euphemism: an inoffensive alternative - facetious: mocking, satirical - overtone: meanings - propriety: modesty -
Printing: A printer-friendly document - better than PDF
© Linguapress.  Do not copy this document to any other website
Copying permitted for personal study, or by teachers for use with their students


A rose by any other name..

For teachers:

Discussion: what do your students think of "political correctness". What does the writer think of it? What points in the article allow us to gauge the writer's viewpoint?

Word formation:
Take the word correctness. The root word is correct. Have stu­dents pick out all the other nouns in this text that are derived from adjectives or verbs; there are plenty! What other words belong to each "family" of words? Derived nouns in the text include:
meaning / wisdom / expression / superiority / anger / attack / excess / derision / conservative / freedom / thought / amend­ment / constitution / organiser / expression / disability / propriety / embracing / debauchery /

Other language points:
What's in a name? That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet.
Note the expression that which, which in modern English would normally be replaced by what, as in What we call a rose.....
Unwittingly : an interesting word, as it is one of the rare surviving words in Modern English that is derived from the old English verb witan, meaning to know (like the German verb wissen). We find it also in the nouns a halfwit or a dimwit... but these are not very PC.  The adjective witty is also related, but the meaning has changed.
Aurally challenged : note the spelling of aurally, which means pertaining to the ear. It is not a synonym of orally, meaning from the mouth. The expression Oral comprehension, commonly used in language classes, is a misnomer, as it is really a student's ability to understand by hearing that is being referred to. Strictly speaking, "oral" comprehension would be an ability to lip read ! We use the expression as if it meant understanding the production of someone else's mouth.


Return to Linguapress home page

Printer-friendly page
Better than PDF
English reading resources

This text :
Level - Advanced
IELTS Level : 6.5 - 8
Flesch-Kincaid  scores
Reading ease level:
54 - Fairly Difficult

Grade level: 10.6

A selection of other resources in graded English
from Linguapress
Selected pages
Advanced level reading : a selection
Who killed Martin Luther King?
USA - America's Amish
Just who are the English?
Days in the death of Francis X
English pubs and their signs
Advanced level short stories:
For Elise  a short story from the USA
Lucky Jim   a short story from the USA
And lots more:  More advanced reading texts  
Intermediate resources :
Mystery - the Titanic and the Temple of Doom
Who is James Bond ?
Sport: Sports, American style
Big red London buses
USA: Hollywood and Superheroes
USA: Close encounters with a Twister  
And more:  More intermediate reading texts  
Selected grammar pages
Online English grammar
Nouns in English
Word order in English
Reported questions in English
Language and style 
Themed crosswords for EFL
The short story of English

CopyrightCopyright information.
Free to view, free to share,  free to use in class, free to print, but not free to copy..
If you like this page and want to share it with others,  just share a link, don't copy.

This resource -  © copyright Linguapress  renewed 2022.

Reproduction is authorised exclusively for personal use by students, or for use by teachers with their classes.

Multi-copying of this resource is permitted for classroom use. In schools declaring the source of copied materials to a national copyright agency, Linguapress advanced level resources should be attributed to "Spectrum" as the source and "Linguapresss France" as the publisher.

Linguapress respects your privacy and does not collect personal data. We use cookies only to log anonymous visitor stats and enable essential page functions; click   to remove this message, otherwise click for more details