This morning I heard a report on NPR by Adrian Florido examining the current fashion among GOP presidential candidates to use the term "illegal alien" when talking about people from other countries who entered the U.S. without permission.
I've heard versions of this story a number of times since California lawmakers last week agreed to strike the word "alien" from the state labor code, even as Donald Trump and his ilk continued to use the term enthusiastically.
It was once considered a neutral term. Aliens are, by definition, people from other places (including outer space). But, through repeated use of the word as a euphemism for "illegal," which is inherently offensive for both its meaning and its travesty of grammar, it too has become just as toxic to a lot of people.
In fact, Florido reported, immigrants preferred it to the term favored by the Los Angeles Times to describe Mexican nationals in the country illegally back in the mid-20th century: wetback.
I did the audible version of a double take. That couldn't be true. How could it ever be OK to use the term? While it may have once simply been an apt description of the physical state of people who had crossed the Rio Grande to sneak into the United States, it began its transformation into a slur when it was applied to all Mexicans who crossed the border without the proper papers. Then it was enshrined in Operation Wetback, the government's massive deportation program started in the '50s that rounded up hundreds of thousands of immigrants mostly in California and Texas.
The term is so jarring to hear now that it was hard to believe it was a staple in a daily newspaper. But then I searched The Times' historical database and found headline after headline like this one: "Conference Warned of Wetback Labor Problem" from 1955.
And this one: "Wetback, Junior Grade, Writes His Own Success Story at 18" from 1963. It was in the article's lead paragraph too: "This is the story of a wetback. But not the usual story." Presumably the usual story was something like this: "Five Killed as 'Wetback' Car Crashes" from 1953.
Although more commonly found in the 1950s, the term showed up in the paper as a description until the 1970s. (The use of "negro" was also common at the time, and replaced terms such as "darkie" that appeared in the paper at the turn of the century.) After that, "wetback" mostly appeared in stories that noted the offensiveness of the term.
The moral of this story is, of course, that any collection of letters, no matter their provenance, can become offensive by how they are used. How long before "undocumented" or "disabled" or "Donald Trump" becomes so tainted we have to drop it from the newspaper too?