Syracuse University Magazine

Orange Connections

How William Safire Changed My Life

By Karen DeCrow

We all miss the excellent writing of William Safire '51, H'78, who passed away last September. And, his terrific sense of humor.

Nineteen years ago he changed my life. In his May 5, 1991 On Language column in The New York Times Magazine, he credits me with inventing the term "PC." Before I read his essay I would have assumed the "credit" went to Chairman Mao. 

He wrote: "The first citation I can find for the incendiary phrase dates from a December 1975 statement by Karen DeCrow, then president of the National Organization for Women. She claimed that a dissident faction felt that feminism was only for ‘white, middle class, straight women' and insisted NOW was moving in the ‘intellectually and politically correct direction.' The phrase began as an assertion by liberal (progressive, concerned) activists and then was turned into an attack phrase by conservative (right-wing, heartless) passivists."

Thus, I have the dubious honor of having brought the term "politically correct" to western civilization. Since I started this nuttiness, I wanted to stop it. I have written several articles saying I want to end PC. To no avail.

I have responded to countless inquiries from journalists asking what I meant in 1975. I say I probably meant that NOW should move with the times, and not be, or even appear to be, racist or elitist. In all interviews, I insist I had no intention of stifling debate or discussion at institutions of higher learning, and was horrified that professors of art history, for example, were prevented from teaching about artworks of nudes. All in my name, I, the passionate civil libertarian.

The research staff of the Oxford English Dictionary has been in touch with me many times. They are reportedly working on "politically correct" for the third edition. I was told it will come out in 2037. I'll be 100 years old, and am trying to stay healthy so I can read the entry.

Since the May 5, 1991 column, my life is not the same. Teachers come toward me at parties, angry: "It was you who unleashed PC into the world." Some of my family members were not angry: "I'm going to congratulate your mother. Safire is an important writer. That's a big column."

At meetings now, when people use the term, they throw me a glance. I look down, shyly.

The inventor of PC. My accountant advises me to take the credit.

It has been rumored that Mr. Safire became a conservative because there were too many liberals in the New York City area when he began writing. 

But, a liberal turned conservative, or a true conservative who may have once been a liberal, there is one thing he was for sure: He was not politically correct. 

For that, we are grateful.

Karen DeCrow L'72 is an author and attorney who lives in Jamesville, New York. She was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2009.

Maine Reunion

Maine ReunionRichard Cost '64, president of the University of Maine at Fort Kent (UMFK), welcomed Suzanne Nance '00 to the campus as the featured performer at the UMFK Foundation Annual Dinner concert in April. Cost retired in July after leading UMFK for the last eight years and working in higher education for 40 years. He also retired from the Navy after six years of active duty. Nance is an accomplished soprano opera singer who has performed in Prague, London, New York, Chicago, and other cities. She also serves as the music director for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network and produces and hosts a weekday classical music program.