Remembering that Words Matter

In times past, there was universal agreement among thinking people that words matter and therefore should be used honestly and with precision. However, from time to time many people have forgotten or ignored this precept, so reminders have been needed.

G. K. Chesterton provided one in Orthodoxy (1908) when he wrote, “Most of the machinery of modern language is [labor-saving] machinery; and it saves mental [labor] very much more than it ought . . . The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.”

George Orwell offered another reminder in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” warning that language should not be manipulated “for our own purposes”; that in the same way that foolish thoughts can produce inaccurate language, so slovenly language can “corrupt thought”; and that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” Perhaps most memorably, he gave examples of how evil behavior can be hidden in euphemism, as when forcing people from their homes is called pacification and transfer of population, and when murder is called elimination of unreliable elements. Elsewhere he also noted that war can be called peace and freedom slavery.

A recent event suggests the need for yet another reminder that words matter. That event was the updating of the Associated Press Stylebook, the official guide for those who write for that agency. Among their new guidelines are these:

To substitute the term “anti-choice” for “pro-life,” and the term “pro-abortion rights” for “pro-abortion” or “pro-choice.”

To avoid classifying anyone as “illegal” or “undocumented.” Similarly, instead of referring to “migrants” or “refugees,” to say “people struggling to enter” a particular country or continent.

What makes the Stylebook’s guidance on these two matters most troubling is that it does not represent carelessness or ignorance but instead the considered judgment of professional journalists. Not only are such people obligated to be responsible in their use of language. In a very real sense they have a special duty to protect it from manipulation. (See the Society of Professional Journalists’ “Code of Ethics.”) The two guidelines mentioned above violate that duty.

Consider first the guideline for speaking about abortion, putting aside for a moment whatever passion we feel about the issue. Abortion (other than miscarriage) may be defined as the purposeful ending of a pregnancy. Some people approve of abortion in all or many circumstances; others disapprove of it in all or many circumstances.

To call the approvers pro-abortion and the disapprovers anti-abortion is fair. To call them pro-choice and pro-life is essentially fair (though arguably ambiguous). However, to say as the Stylebook does, that the approvers support pro-abortion rights and the disapprovers are simply anti-abortion is in effect to say that the latter are deniers of other people’s rights. That is not only unfair but also intellectually dishonest.

Now consider the guideline for speaking about immigrants. Traditionally, the terms immigrant and alien were virtually synonymous. The former was, and still is, defined as “a person who has come into a foreign country in order to live there”; the latter as ” a person who lives in a country but is not a citizen.” A refugee is defined as “a person who leaves his or her home or country to find safety.”

Given that the distinction between lawful and unlawful behavior is both clear and relevant, it is appropriate to speak of a legal or illegal immigrant or a legal or illegal alien. (After all, to do so is merely to designate how their behavior comports with the law.) Recently, however, people who take a lenient view of border security have argued that “no human being can be illegal” and proposed the term “undocumented immigrant.” The Stylebook now goes much further and recommends that even “undocumented” be avoided, along with the terms “migrant” and “refugee.”

Thus over the course of a few decades, the English language has been purged of the most meaningful and helpful terms for discussing the status of people living in this (or any other) country. And now, as if that were not intellectually debilitating enough, the AP Stylebook is leaving its writers with only the paltry designation of “people struggling to enter” a country.

The deficiencies of the guidelines discussed in this essay may not be present elsewhere in the AP Stylebook, but that fact does not diminish their importance. By slanting the approved language for writing about abortion and immigration, the Stylebook has compromised the pursuit of truth about those issues.

Copyright © 2017 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved