Last week the Associated Press announced that it would ban the term illegal immigrant from its stylebook. They are among many organizations and immigration advocates of late who argue that the term is uncivil, or even defamatory.
Whether there is a point in that or not – and quite a few, including immigrants, think there isn’t – the main problem here is a matter of how language works. The idea is that banning “illegal immigrant” will change how people think, that using the term undocumented immigrant will improve the public opinion of the people in question. But it won’t.
The problem is that language dances much more lightly on thought than we often suppose, and in a battle between thought and language, thought has a way of winning out. Words’ meanings, even when crafted to bend away from opinion, drift back to where we didn’t want them to be, like a fly keeps landing on you after you swat it away. This has happened to previous attempts to expunge a term of its negative meaning.
Consider affirmative action, now so conventional we rarely stop to parse what the actual words comprising it mean. “Affirming” what? What kind of “action”? The term was a magnificently artful and gracious construction of the 1960s, giving a constructive, positive air to an always controversial policy.
Note, however, that political opponents soon came to associate the term with…