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When Words Lose Their Meaning

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

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.

. .

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.


I've long suspected that newspaper editors invented editorial boards to approve, condemn or just generally mess with editorial ideas so they won't have to bear responsibility for them alone. When many people are responsible for some atrocious decision, then nobody is. The very phrase, People From Many Walks of Life, is prima facie evidence that somebody doesn't want to take the fall alone.

So what would the AP have the nation's newspapers use instead of "illegal immigrants" to describe illegal immigrants? On that point, these keepers of journalistic nomenclature aren't as clear. Indeed, they're downright muddy, as those intent on avoiding the simple meaning of words tend to be. They seem to think vagueness a safe refuge rather than the tacit confession it is.

According to the Washington Post, the AP wants newspapers to "specify wherever possible how someone entered the country illegally and from where. Crossed the border? Overstayed a visa? What nationality?" Goodness, by the time all those details are listed, the story may have to be continued on an inside page. If the paper hasn't already gone to press by then.

Somebody from NPR, which can always be counted on to help whenever the object is to blur the language, said the correct phrase should be Unauthorized Migrants, which doesn't sound like much of an improvement.

Time magazine quoted an official at AP who said the term Foreigners in the United States in Violation of the Law could also be used. I think that means illegal immigrants.


. .

There are people on both sides of this debate over illegal immigration who can empathize with folks who don't have their papers in order. I daresay I'd be sorely tempted to wade across the Rio Grande myself if there were no other way to get to this promised land.

Folks who have no proof they belong here must live in fear much of the time -- not only fear of the INS but of the local thugs who make a practice of taking advantage of them. But immigration -- legal, illegal or in-between -- is going to happen here as long as Lady Liberty lifts her lamp beside the golden door. And this country has work to offer, not to mention a continent-long border with a still largely Third World country.

Something has to change. The border must be secured. Laws must be followed. La ley es la ley. The law is the law. But not even the most hardened nativist would be able to round up 12 million people and deport 'em all.

What to do? Believe it or not, it looks as though Washington is getting closer and closer to a solution to this problem. The papers these days are full of rumors about bipartisan agreement and negotiated compromise. Plans have been floated to make illegal immigrants legal -- although not citizens till a decent period of time has passed. (None dare call it Amnesty.) It begins to seem possible that the folks in Washington who are supposed to work these things out may actually work this one out. It would be a nice change. It's time we stopped fighting this problem, as much fun as it's been, and just solved it.


But the country is going to have a hard time solving the problem of illegal immigrants, or any other, if we've lost the language. And when an enterprise like the Associated Press, which is supposed to guard the language, or at least the form of it used in this low but necessary trade called journalism, abandons it in favor of verbal fog. Then somebody somewhere has to stand up and demand: Speak plain!

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