Mimsy Were the Borogoves

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

Deliberately imprecise language is itself a bias

Jerry Stratton, April 11, 2006

I don’t have much of a position on illegal immigration; in general, I’m for throwing the borders open and putting the Border Patrol on welfare. What I found interesting in this Chicago Tribune follow-up by Frank James is that it describes one more reason that bias--or at least very imprecise language--sneaks into news articles: a fear of repetition within the same article.

A reader wrote in complaining that the Tribune seemed to be using the phrase “undocumented immigrant” as a synonym for “illegal immigrant”. The Tribune’s response is a fascinating look at one reason for the redefinition of the English language in news articles:

Obviously, this reader doesn’t like the word “undocumented.” At the Tribune we use it as a synonym for “illegal.” Journalists use synonyms in order not to be repetitive.

“Undocumented” is no synonym for “illegal”. If “undocumented immigrant” is a synonym for “illegal immigrant” in normal English or even in official documents, it is so only as a euphemism: a word used precisely because it lacks clarity. “Although there is no substitute for merit in writing, clarity comes closest to being one.”

Fear of repetition, when it leads to making up synonyms, is a source of misdirection in the same way that forced balance and extreme interpretations can be in others.

But, at least this practice is now documented.

April 18, 2006: A packet of aspirins for the Chicago Tribune

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.

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