We frequently debate issues of language and terminology here at TheChaliceblog, be it the language of reverence or the proper way to refer to someone who is not in this country legally.
Today, Washington Post Executive Editor Len Downie, Jr. took questions from the public in an online chat. Quite a few people asked about issues related to terminology, so I thought pass on what he had to say.
Chicago, Ill.: What is The Post's position on using the words undocumented immigrants vs illegal aliens?
It has been obvious to us who see through semantics that media who uses the latter (Lou Dobbs, Rush Limbaugh, etc.) understand the obsolescence of this government term.
Everyone knows that since Orson Welles' 1938 radio prank, aliens in the modern imagery are slimy, monstrous, non-human entities. To continue to dehumanize the 'illegals' in this manner seems overkill.
Leonard Downie Jr.: We try not to use the word aliens because it can be ambiguous. And we try to use illegal or undocumented in those instances in which either term is accurate.
Dunn Loring, Va.: Since The Post often uses the term "undocumented worker" to refer to an illegal immigrant, can we expect The Post to use a similar formulation to refer to other illegal activities, such as "undocumented driver" for driving without a license, or "undocumented doctor" for someone practicing medicine without a license? Seriously though, by using the term undocumented worker, isn't the Post taking an editorial position on the subject matter and thus losing some of its objectivity?
Leonard Downie Jr.: As I just indicated, where illegal is clearly the accurate term, we use it. A driver without a license is "unlicensed" driver.
Burke, Va.: A recent internal BBC audit recommended changing their internal style policy that prohibited the use of the words "terrorist" or "terrorism", except when quoting someone; the BBC found that by avoiding the use of these terms they were actually undermining their efforts to be accurate and credible. Do you anticipate changing The Post's policy in the near future?
Leonard Downie Jr.: We constantly review our policy and continue to use terms that are as precisely accurate as possible in each context.
Dunn Loring, Va.: According to my search of The Post's Web site, today's paper's identifies something/one as conservative at least fifteen times, while identifying something/one as liberal only three times? Why is being conservative noteworthy but something being liberal isn't?
Leonard Downie Jr.: Perhaps we did a better job in today's paper of covering conservatives than we did liberals.
As a kid, I asked my mom if illegal aliens were like E.T.
"No," she said. "They are people from other countries who come here looking for work. But they don't do their paperwork and the government sends them back if they get caught." (Naturally this is not a direct quote, but I recall that she neither defended nor condemned people here illegally in her response, but answered my question as simply as possible. This is very like my mother. Years working in low-income housing teach one a certian verbal contortionism on such issues, I'm guessing.)
"Oh, OK." I said, having lost interest in the topic.
That's pretty much all it took for me. And I really doubt that too many people reading this are fooled that the fundamental mission or behavior of "the Department of War" changed when it became "the Department of Defense."
Still, as I've said before, some people smarter than I am take the opposite view.
The whole chat is here. I thought Downie's responses were thoughtful and interesting. I don't know that language is as powerful as lots of people seem to think and tend to find these discussions a bit tedious, but surely the debates on them will rage on until we as a species develop telepathy.