Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

A packet of aspirins for the Chicago Tribune

Jerry Stratton, April 18, 2006

Jeremiah writes in response to Undocumented Bias:

You’re spreading illiteracy and bias, but blaming others for doing so:

According to Apple Dictionary: undocumented |??n?däky??mentid| adjective

1 not recorded in or proved by documents.

2 not having the appropriate legal document or license : undocumented immigrants.

Consequently, the term “undocumented immigrants” is equal to “illegal immigrants” by it meaning.

It’s a good idea for the conservatives to spend, at least, as much time in an English language class, as at Church, especially, when knowledge of words is very helpful for the purpose of reading and understanding the Holy Scripture.

I don’t quite get your implication that wanting to throw the borders open makes people conservative, so I’m going to ignore it. Except to point out how bizarre the left/right divide is in the United States that you could even make such a claim.

And I can’t really respond to your claim about what “Apple Dictionary” says because I don’t know which dictionary that is. Apple doesn’t make a dictionary. The Apple dictionary tool searches multiple dictionaries; my Macintosh returns a different result than the one you quote above (which is why I couldn’t fix the weird characters in your text next to “adjective”).

“Undocumented” doesn’t even have an entry in my Webster’s Ninth Collegiate, or in my Random House Dictionary from 1978. Nor is it clear from your “Apple Dictionary” quote that undocumented is equivalent to illegal. Their example proves this only if you already accept “undocumented immigrant” as equivalent to “illegal immigrant”. The phrase “undocumented vehicle” satisfies their second definition too, and without implying illegality.

But this is beside the point. If this euphemism has entered “Apple Dictionary” and other dictionaries since then, that doesn’t make it any less a euphemism. Nor does it justify using the euphemism in order to avoid repetition.

“The slovenliness of our language,” says George Orwell in Politics and the English Language, “makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.... but if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow.... every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.

He says it all far better than I could. I recommend that you read it. It’s a good idea to read Orwell, because the ability to recognize anesthetic terminology is very helpful when reading news reports. Reporters often seem to require that “packet of aspirins at their elbow”. (Even if you consider the Chicago Tribune to be Holy Scripture, I still recommend Orwell first.)

Nowhere does Orwell argue that “sheer cloudy vagueness” is acceptable if used to avoid the repetition that so frightened the Tribune’s author.

In response to Deliberately imprecise language is itself a bias: The Chicago Tribune claims to use extremely imprecise language out of a fear of repetition. This ends up introducing a bias--or at least an extreme lack of clarity--into their reporting.