It’s not called ‘fondling.’ It’s called ‘assault.’

During this most contentious election season, “politically correct” has come in for more than its share of discussion. Depending on who’s defining it, it means “agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people,” as Merriam-Webster says, or it means “The idealogy of weird left wing liberals who want society to be nothing but accepting of all perverts and freaks everywhere,” as Urban Dictionary has it, misspellings included.

While not a new term—The Oxford English Dictionary dates it to 1805—it really took off in the 1980s and ’90s, not coincidentally a time when many racial, ethnic, gender, and other groups were gaining visibility and demanding respect. 

This Google Ngram, which tracks the appearance of terms in many books, shows the dramatic jump.


Whatever you might think of “political correctness,” its impact on how we refer to people and groups is unmistakable, and it goes beyond changes such as identifying women by their own names, instead of by their husbands’, or calling adult black males “men” instead of “boys.”

Women have been the beneficiary of many of these changes. They are usually referred to now as, well, “women” in news reports, instead of the more ubiquitous “girl” that pervaded in much of the 20th century. It is much less common to see a qualifier like “female firefighter” or “woman soldier” than it was through most of the 20th century, though it is still far too common to see a woman’s marital or parental status highlighted when she’s in the news, when a man’s is not. (A cursory Nexis search of news reports since October 1 shows more than twice as many uses of “mom” or “mother” in headlines than of “dad” or “father.”)

Sign up for CJR's daily email

We frequently advocate that information like race, religion, gender, or even age are relevant sometimes but that such relevance must be clear to the reader and then must be applied equally to all. The news media have gotten better about not referring to a “lady cop” or “male nurse” when there is no relevant reason for giving the person’s sex. Even calling someone a “lady,” as Garner’s Modern English Usage says, “has become increasingly problematic.” Outside of a title in British peerage, on restrooms, or in idioms like “ladies and gentlemen,” “most other uses of the term might invite disapproval—depending on the readers’ or listeners’ views about sexism.”

Some fights are still being waged, and are worth waging. For many years, news reports commonly reported about someone, usually a man, who “fondled” someone else, usually a woman or child, in an inappropriate, sexual way.

That evokes such nice images: A lover “fondles” a partner; a child “fondles” a puppy. The implication is that it’s a good thing: The earliest meaning of “fondled” was “to pamper,” and the root, “fond,” means to have warm feelings about.

But let’s be clear: Anyone who touches someone else inappropriately is not “fondling,” no matter the toucher’s motives.

That person is “groping,” or “sexually assaulting,” or something that does not carry positive connotations.

Even many dictionaries have accepted that “fondling” has been skunked: Webster’s New World College Dictionary lists a second definition as “touch or stroke (someone), often inappropriately, in making sexual advances.”

Yet in discussing the accusations that Donald Trump forced his attentions on women, a fair number of publications have said that the women accused Trump of “fondling” them. And many laws still use the word “fondling” to describe something that the receiver of the act is not feeling very good about.

That must change. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage advises against “fondling,” saying: “It means caress or stroke in a tender way. The word is not suitable for descriptions of rape, assault or unwelcome advances. Grab, grope or touch may be more appropriate.” The Associated Press Stylebook does not weigh in on it.

This is not about being “politically correct.” It is about being just plain correct.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.