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Letter: What’s in a Word?

(Editor’s note: This letter references the editorial column by Robert McMillan, titled “Undocumented Aliens vs. Illegal Aliens” that appeared in the Friday, Feb. 18 edition of the Levittown Tribune.)

Illegal aliens. Undocumented workers. At face value these two terms seem the same. Nevertheless, the Society of Professional Journalists - as reported in these pages by Robert McMillan in his February 18th column - has entreated its membership to jettison the former. It knows, and I agree, that the words we used to describe people and their actions and character affect our perception of them. Monikers have connotations, meanings, and stigmas. But shouldn’t they? Isn‘t that the whole purpose of the written language? Isn’t that what distinguishes language from communication?

I’m not suggesting that we should use racial/ethnic slurs with abandon or tolerate words that are slanderous in nature. But do people really have a right to demand what we call people and do people have a right to control what we call them and what they want to call themselves? What happens when rapists decide that they want to be called “sexually assertive individuals,” when shoplifters want to be called “unauthorized consumers,” when drug dealers want to be called “unlicensed pharmacists,” when embezzlers want to be called “fund re-appropriators,” when politicians want bribes to be called “unofficial advanced commissions,” and when bank robbers want their jobs to be called “non-depositor withdrawals?”

It might not make these deeds more acceptable but it might make them less unacceptable. And should it come to pass that these nomenclatural designations become adopted by society writ large, will the older terms face mandatory retirement? Will it be considered bigoted, prejudiced, or “hate speech” to use terms like rapist, shoplifter, or bank robber because they denigrate whole groups of people?

Laugh if you must, but there are doubtless civil libertarians who contend that the laws against rape are unconstitutional as they lead to gender profiling and de facto discrimination against men. Shoplifters doubtless have their advocates because - and I know this from 20 years in the retail - the markup is so high that shoplifting has little real impact on the profit margin and is an essential vehicle for making consumer goods available to those with lower incomes. And how is an individual bribing a politician to ensure his better citizen representation in government any different from a professional lobbyist?

We would be suspicious of an airline executive who never flies his own airline, a waiter who never eats in his own restaurant, a clergyman who doesn’t believe in God, and a public school administrator who sends his own children to a private academy. Shouldn’t we be just as suspicious of an organization of professional journalists who seek to limit the expressiveness of the English language?

Paul Manton

Levittown resident