Friday, April 28, 2006

Geoff Nunberg and aliens

If I lived in central California (and had evenings off), I'd have been here last night: An Evening with Geoffrey Nunberg: The Paradox of Political Language.
There's a paradox in modern attitudes about political language. Left and right may disagree as to which expressions count as deceptive packaging and which are merely effective branding, but both acknowledge that the American public is particularly susceptible to linguistic manipulation. Yet it's also fair to say that there has never been an age that was so wary of the mischief that language can work, or so alert to the dangers of political euphemism and indirection. How did we come to this point? Are political and public figures really more mendacious than they used to be, or does it reflect a changing media role or an increasingly polarized political climate? Why is widespread sophistication no impediment to the misleading use of language, and why do many of the most successful linguistic maneuvers pass our radar undetected?
Nunberg, a frequent contributor of language commentaries on Fresh Air, most recently covered use of the word alien in immigration discussions. Here's an excerpt:
Alien still suggests strangeness and difference -- people who are "not of our sort." That's partly due to the science-fiction writers who picked the word up in the 1930's to refer to extraterrestrial beings. It's revealing that alien is far more likely to be used to describe Mexicans and Central Americans than Europeans. The tens of thousands of Irish and Poles who are in the country illegally are almost always referred to as "immigrants," not "aliens." And anti-immigrationists almost never use aliens to describe foreigners who are in the country legally -- on news broadcasts, "illegal aliens" outnumbers "legal aliens" by about 100 to 1. Whatever its legal meaning, when it comes to the crunch, alien means "brown people who snuck in."
Just one more reason not to favor illegal aliens over illegal immigrants.


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