By Geoffrey Nunberg

Illustrator: Barbara Miner

Photo: Barbara Miner 
Crowds estimated at 30,000 marched across Milwaukee’s 6th Street bridge on March 23, 2006.

Back in 1920, The New Republic reported on an exercise in which the students at a New England college were asked to provide definitions of the word alien. Their answers were uniformly negative: “a person who is hostile to this country,” “a person on the opposite side,” “an enemy from a foreign land.”

Commenting on those responses three years later in his book Public Opinion, Walter Lippman remarked on how odd it was that emotional meanings should attach to what was in fact an exact legal term. But by then, the word alien had been colored by decades of anti-immigrant sentiment, which reached its peak in the Red scares of the years after World War I. “Fully 90 percent of communist and anarchist agitation is traceable to aliens,” said the attorney general and presidential hopeful A. Mitchell Palmer in 1920, by way of justifying the raids that rounded up and deported 10,000 suspected radicals whom he described as “aliens…of misshapen caste of mind and indecencies of character.” Or as the American Legion Weekly put it, “Aliens… are not of our sort.”

That’s a chronic feature of the language of immigration. The words refuse to be confined to their legal and economic senses; they swell with emotional meanings that reflect the fears and passions of the time. True, alien no longer conjures up images of wild-eyed, bomb-throwing anarchists. Not even the fiercest opponents of immigration reform claim that the Mexicans, Chinese, and Irish who enter the country illegally are seeking anything but economic opportunity.

But 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 1930s 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.”

Nowadays, those connotations have led the majority of the mainstream media to steer clear of the word aliens — “illegal immigrants” tends to be the phrase of choice. But illegal has something more than a technical meaning, too. True, dictionaries define the word simply as “not according to law.” But there are disparaging connotations to the negative prefix in illegal, which is actually just a variant of the prefix in-. Inhuman doesn’t mean the same thing as “not human,” and you don’t become irreligious simply by not going to church. And you hear the same negative tone in words like insincere, inflexible, and illegitimate. So it isn’t surprising that we reserve illegal for conveying strong disapproval. We may talk about illegal drugs, but we don’t describe the Porsche 959 as an illegal car, even though it can’t legally be driven in the U.S.

Then too, we don’t usually describe law-breakers as being illegal in themselves. Jack Abramoff may have done illegal lobbying, but nobody has called him an illegal lobbyist. And whatever laws Bernie Ebbers and Martha Stewart may have broken, they weren’t illegal CEOs.

It’s only your immigration status that can qualify you as being an illegal person, or that can earn you the honor of being “an illegal” all by itself. That use of illegal as a noun actually goes back a long ways. The British coined it in the 1930s to describe Jews who entered Palestine without official permission, and it has been used ever since as a way of reducing individuals to their infractions.

Where to find neutral language? Out of desperation, people turn to borrowing words from other languages, but that can have its pitfalls, too. “Guest worker” sounds a lot more precious than the German word Gastarbeiter it was based on — in German, after all, Gast can mean simply visitor.

Then there’s undocumented. That word was introduced in the 1970s as a version of the French phrase sans papiers, or “without papers,” which is used in a number of other nations to refer to immigrants who have no legal status — at the rallies across the country in recent days, Spanish speakers were using the equivalent sin papeles.

Undocumented may be the most decent word that’s available to us, but something was lost in that translation, too. It isn’t just that undocumented adds a bureaucratic note, but that it focuses on the government’s records rather than the immigrants themselves. Visitors who overstay their visas may not be undocumented in the strict sense of the term, which is why the INS ultimately decided to stay with “illegal.” But those people are still without papers in the more suggestive European sense, people who have to live without any official status in the shadow of a modern state.

Aliens, illegals, even undocumented — over the past hundred years, it has been in the nature of the language of immigration to suppress the human side of the story. Yet language can’t wholly obscure those realities. As the Swiss writer Max Frisch wrote in 1965 about the European experience with immigration, “We called for a labor force, but it was human beings that came.”

Geoffrey Nunberg ( is a senior researcher at the Center for the Study ofLanguage and Information at Stanford University and a Consulting Full Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University. He is a regular commentator on the NPR program “Fresh Air,” where “Aliens” originally aired in April 2006. Reprinted with permission.