Extra, extra! 'Illegal immigrant' and other language changes

For U.S. reporters and editors, the term “illegal immigrant” looks to be going the way of the eight-track tape.

The Associated Press is the news service that prompted Mark Twain to say, “There are only two forces that can carry light to all the corners of the globe: the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here.”

AP’s stylebook is regarded as the standard for language and usage, and it’s just decreed that it “no longer sanctions the term 'illegal immigrant' or the use of 'illegal' to describe a person.”  Rather, “illegal” should be used only to characterize an action -- like living in a country illegally -- instead of the person taking that action.

The AP weighed in against the alternative “undocumented” as imprecise -- “a person may have plenty of documents, just not the ones required for legal residence.”

The term “illegal immigrant” was the kinder, gentler answer, more than a dozen years ago, when “illegal alien” was jettisoned as being overly harsh and making human beings sound like space creatures.

As recently as last October, the AP reaffirmed that “illegal immigrant” was the correct go-to terminology.

Now it will be biting the dust, although alternatives that aren’t wordy and cumbersome may be harder to come up with.

News is necessarily about shorthand, about conveying a lot of information in a few words. Someone who may bear the grand title of “corporate vice president for external media affairs” should not be surprised to see himself called “spokesman” in print or on the airwaves. For news purposes, that is what he does.

So we don’t know yet how many news outfits will want to find their own alternatives to “illegal immigrant,” or switch to one of AP’s suggested but wordier substitute phrases, such as “a person entering a country illegally” or “a person entering without legal permission.”

“Unauthorized immigrant” may be closer to accurate, although “immigrant” itself sounds like a permanent status. Does it fit people who intend to come here to work and make some money and go home, wherever that is? Does it fit the nonstandard of the “illegal immigrant” image, like, say, a tourist from Ireland who stays after his tourist visa expires? A hundred or so years ago, the word “immigrant” evoked southern or eastern Europeans or the Irish themselves; today, we invariably think of Mexicans and Central Americans.

The vocabulary of the news is idiomatic and always in flux.

The words “bastard” and “illegitimate” haven’t been used for years to describe children born out of wedlock, and you almost never see or hear the term “out of wedlock” in any case. Nor “unwed mother,” in part because, as was pointed out correctly, no one says “unwed father,” and in part because as of last year, more than half of the children born to American women under 30 were born, as was so quaintly put once upon a time, “without benefit of clergy.”

What’s astonishing is how quickly that happened, from millenniums of censoriousness (paging Hester Prynne) to a shrug of the shoulders. The state of California used to stamp the word “illegitimate” in red ink on the birth certificate of a child of an unwed mother, until wiser heads realized that, whatever the arguments about the benefit of two parents versus one, society was stigmatizing a child for something the child had no control over.

It was only in 1968 -- the year of revolution and liberation -- that Diana Ross and the Supremes had a No. 1 hit called “Love Child.” It’s a plea by a woman -- born illegitimate herself, and using words like “shame” and “guilt” -- explaining to her beau why she won’t have sex with him, lest they bring another “love child” into the world.

1968! It now sounds more like 1868. 

You have only to go online to see thousands of comments from people accusing the AP of caving in to political correctness. And the backlash will be back as individual newspapers and broadcasters keep trying to sort out their own preferred terms.

If you think language and culture change too fast, here’s an object lesson about what can go wrong in the other direction.

This happened in September 1994, a headline on a story in a newspaper called the Northwest Herald in Crystal Lake, Ill. I keep a copy of it, and the letters to the editor about it, on my desk.

The paper apparently had a policy, like other news organizations then, not to use the term “gay” as a synonym for “homosexual.”

Here is what happened.

An Associated Press story in the Herald on Sept. 5, 1994, detailed the controversy over a Smithsonian exhibit about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. The paper used the AP story but wrote its own headline. And in that headline, the paper referred to the name painted on the plane that dropped the first bomb.

The plane was named for the pilot’s mother, Enola Gay. But the headline writer, presumably on a hurried deadline and observing some stylebook rule, wrote:

“Atomic bombers criticize Enola homosexual exhibit.”


AP's style change on a hot-button phrase

Stylebook language change launches a ferocious debate

The L.A. Times considers its own style changes in wake of AP decision

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