Thursday, April 13, 2006

Aliens? Illegals? Undocumenteds?

Geoffrey Nunberg is the Stanford University word expert who appears from time to time on NPR’s Fresh Air. Nunberg's musings on the language of immigration are worth considering. His most recent commentary, “Aliens,” was heard on today’s edition of the interview-based program, hosted by Terri Gross.

Below are two excerpts of his essay in which Nunberg examines the difficulty in coming up with a neutral accurate word for a person from another country who is in the USA without the government's official blessing:

“...It’s only your immigration status that can qualify you as being an illegal person, or that can earn you the honor of being ‘an illegal’ all by itself. That use of illegal as a noun actually goes back a long ways. The British coined it in the 1930’s to describe Jews who entered Palestine without official permission, and it has been used ever since as a way of reducing individuals to their infractions.

“...Then there's undocumented. That word was introduced in the 1970's as a version of the French phrase sans papiers, or "without papers," which is used in a number of other nations to refer to immigrants who have no legal status -- at the rallies across the country in recent days, Spanish speakers were using the equivalent sin papeles.”

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