I am looking for an example of a pair of adjectives or nouns (broadly defined) in classical Latin which mean the same thing but one is considered rude and the other one polite. I could list several such pairs of politically incorrect and correct phrases in English or Finnish, but no Latin ones come to mind and I wonder whether the phenomenon existed then as it does today. For English examples, consider "blind" vs. "visually impaired" or "nigger" vs. "African-American". There are many kinds of political (in)correctness and it is also a matter of opinion. I hope, however, that the concept is clear enough.

Can anyone give a similar pair in classical Latin? How do we know that there is such a difference in tone? If there are several such pairs, a well-attested or otherwise prominent example would be great.

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The whole idea of politically correct language derives, ultimately, from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and it is as modern a concept as one can imagine. We have a fairly good knowledge of theories about language in the classical world (from Plato’s Cratylus onwards) and the idea that one can shape reality through vocabulary has no place among them. So, the answer to your question must be “no, there are no such pairs in classical Latin”.

Of course, there were speech registers: you wouldn’t use the same words in the Senate and in the brothel, and the fun is that most ancient Roman taboo words are still alive - and taboo - in one Romance language or another. We know a lot of classical obscene expressions, not only from authors like Plautus or Catullus, but also from graffiti scribbled on walls in Pompeii and elsewhere, and we know that they were considered vulgar. Consider CIL IV, 9246, a graffiti from Pompeii: somebody describes a sexual intercourse, and (possibly someone else) writes: tales sed versus scribere turpe fuit “but to write such verses was a bad thing”.

  • This is very interesting! Of course there have always been different registers, but I didn't know that the idea of political correctness is so young.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Feb 18, 2018 at 19:33
  • I'm highly skeptical of this argument. Do you have any evidence for this strong coupling of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and the advent of "political correctness"? It takes a lot less than a strong "language shapes reality" thesis to inspire a (well-intentioned or not) push not to "speak certain ways about certain people."
    – brianpck
    Feb 20, 2018 at 2:56

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