Paul Greenberg

The editors at the Associated Press made news themselves last week when they announced that their stylebook would no longer approve the use of the phrase Illegal Immigrant to describe illegal immigrants. To borrow some newspeak from George Orwell's classic dystopia, "1984," down the memory hole the phrase must go. For it makes the folks at AP feel doubleplusungood when they see badspeak.

Speaking of Orwell, he could have written the line used by Kathleen Carroll of the AP, who announced the change with this claim and advertisement: "Our goal always is to use the most precise and accurate words so that the meaning is clear to any reader anywhere." The Ministry of Truth couldn't have said it better than Editor Carroll. Or worse.

Ah, yes, to be precise and accurate. A laudatory aim. And to achieve that ambitious goal, the AP has decided to nix the most precise and accurate words to describe illegal immigrants, which is to say, illegal and immigrants. Big Brother would understand.

To quote the announcement from AP: "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."

The way illegal immigrants do?

Somebody once said that language was the Little Roundtop of any political argument, that is, the decisive ground. Whoever occupies it may hold an unassailable position, or at least shouldn't give it up without one heckuva fight. (See Gettysburg, 1863.) This current debate over words, namely two of them, illegal and immigrants, is too important to cede to the other side. Words deserve respect, even reverence. When we allow them to be devalued, the whole language is distorted, and thought itself degraded.

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The Associated Press says it made this change after discussions on the topic that included "people from many walks of life." Which is to say, a committee. Ah, committees. Which are now inevitably called Task Forces. They're where bad ideas spring up like mushrooms after a spring rain. And good ideas go to die. Why? Because no one person alone would want to make a decision to change the clear meaning of the wonderful, descriptive and, on occasion, precise English language. So let a committee do it. That way, the crime can be laid to a safely anonymous entity known as People From Many Walks of Life.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.