It has been two decades in the making, but we are now here. Politically correct speech and jargon gymnastics have led to the apparent erosion of common sense in some of our most cherished institutions.

Most people recognize the absurdity of “birthing person” or “uterus owners” in activists’ social media posts. But the degradation of the English language and the shift of common culture happens in baby steps, ones we often don’t recognize until after they’ve happened.

This week in Davidson County, North Carolina, 16-year-old student Christian McGhee was suspended for three days for using the term “illegal alien” in class when clarifying the word “alien” in a vocabulary lesson. A classmate reportedly threatened to fight Christian over his word choice, but both students and their teacher insisted the exchange was innocent, and the other student’s outrage was in jest.

However, the school’s assistant principal is digging in. According to the student’s mother, Christian was suspended for three days, and the administrator refused to reconsider the mark on his record just a year before Christian plans to apply to college.

“If this was handled properly in the classroom, it could’ve easily been used as a teachable moment for everyone,” Leah McGhee, Christian’s mom, said in an interview on WBT’s Pete Kaliner show this week. “Our family feels that suspension and a label of racism is an extreme in this case. I feel that the negligence of the administration’s decision fueled the injustice to a student who simply asked for clarification from a teacher.”

This is not really a First Amendment issue, although the case could be made. This is more an example of the left’s decades-long, slow march through institutions. Their push includes policy, employee “training,” lawsuits, and lobbying that have fundamentally reshaped the very words we speak. And they use fear to enforce it.

The “politically correct” fears that once permeated education, media, and other institutions are turning to acceptance, even advocacy. The original claim of these semantic shifts was that reshaping language made for more effective communication that was less divisive and more accurate. However, it has slowly meant that actual meaning is lost, terms are loaded with political undertones, and using disfavored ones has real consequences.

The terms “man, “woman,” “mother,” and “father” are being replaced with “parent,” “person, and “human.” It seems innocent enough; there are plenty of words in the English language that some generations have accepted and others have not.

But when “pregnant women” became “pregnant persons,” and “illegal aliens” became “undocumented migrants,” political agendas became evident. In 2013, the Associated Press tried to thread the needle. The term “illegal alien” remains in Webster’s Dictionary as: “a foreign person who lives in a country without having official permission to live there,” with no mention of race or national origin at all. AP said they changed their style manual to avoid labeling people.

“The Stylebook no longer sanctions the term「illegal immigrant」 or the use of 「illegal」 to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that 「illegal」 should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally,” said AP’s senior vice president and executive editor Kathleen Carroll in a blog post at the time.

The AP Stylebook guides most newsrooms in the country.

The term “politically correct” is tremendously weighted as well. It appeared in the writings of the former Communist Party leader Mao Zhedong as he tried to control his regime by evaluating the terms for “correct” and “incorrect” language. Now politically correct is used somewhat interchangeably with “woke,” but mostly by conservatives who are critical of the left’s effort to dictate speech.

Liberals rarely use the terms outside of mocking conservatives, showing yet another shift in language. The terms now reside firmly in the conservatives’ quiver used to defend free speech issues and highlight instances like that of North Carolina student Christian McGhee. In his case, however, it is more than semantics. It demonstrates what can happen to a young man who, with no ill intent and reportedly no “victim,” was punished by a bureaucrat enforcing a woke ideology that had been ingrained in the policy of a public school.

Within hours of the McGhees’ story posting on Carolina Journal we had no fewer than five law firms calling our newsroom to get their contact information.

“We are blown away by the people who have reached out in support and to cover this story,” Leah said on Pete Kaliner’s show.” We’ve prayed about it and feel like we need an attorney to help us navigate this process, as we’ve never been in a situation like this. The label of racism in today’s world is so strong that I feel like we do not need to tackle this giant on our own.”