America's Language Metamorphosis

by Dave Kopel

Rocky Mountain News, Jan. 8, 1996.

Words have consequences. "Whoever controls the language, the images, controls the race," observed Allen Ginsberg. For instance, when Madison, Hamilton, and other backers of the proposed Constitution called themselves the "federalists," and their opponents the "anti-federalists," the cause of ratification was greatly helped. Critics of the new Constitution, who opposed increasing the power of the central government, were furious that "federalism," an attractive term connoting a decentralized federation of equal sovereigns, had been appropriated by persons who wanted the opposite of "federalism" as traditionally understood.

In the abortion debate, the anti-abortion folks, knowing that being "anti"-anything sounds negative, style themselves "pro-life," while the proponents of abortion call themselves "pro-choice," rather than "pro-abortion."

In an energetic display of sensitivity, the Los Angeles Times a few years ago issued a style-book (later withdrawn as a result of ridicule) forbidding its writers to use terms such as "gyp," "Dutch treat," and "illegal alien."

In today’s politics, the contest for vocabulary control is as heated as ever. So here’s a quick guide to some of the dictionary locales where our political future is being determined.

Affirmative action. This term was first used in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations as an admonition for non-discrimination and an encouragement for outreach in hiring. For example, President Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925 (March 1961) required that federal contractors "take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated, during employment, without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin."

Today, almost everyone still favors "affirmative action" as defined by President Kennedy. Not only is non-discrimination a good idea, Americans tend to be in favor of "action," and everybody likes being "affirmative."

One of the most effective language coups ever was pulled off in the 1970s by advocates of racial quotas (which were being attacked as "reverse discrimination") who managed to get "quotas" defined as "affirmative action."

This Orwellian language reversal has helped keep quotas going many decades after Congress outlawed all forms of governmental racial discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The election fate of the 1996 California Civil Rights Initiative will largely depend on whether voters think that the CCRI is about "quotas" or about "affirmative action."

Assault Weapon. According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, "assault rifles" are "short, compact, selective-fire weapons that fire a cartridge intermediate in power." In other words, battlefield machine guns carried by infantry; examples include the American M16 assault rifle, and the famous Soviet AK-47 (subsequently replaced by the AKM-74).

In another brilliant linguistic coup, the gun prohibition lobbies popularized the term "assault weapon" with predictably frightening effects. President Clinton insisted, and most Americans agreed, that military weapons with automatic fire had no place in civilian life. The trouble was, not one of the "assault weapons" banned by the 1994 Clinton crime bill is used by a military force anywhere in the world, and not one can fire automatically. (In an automatic, bullets will fire as long as the trigger stays depressed.)

In the rest of the English-speaking world, semiautomatic firearms are called "self-loading" firearms. The "assault weapon" ban never would have passed Congress by a single vote (in each house), if the legislators had been voting on a ban on "self-loading" guns. Nobody likes "assault" and many people don’t like "weapons" (which the implied anti-personnel usage), but "self-loading" invokes a rather benign image of some kind of useful gadget.

Civilian. Traditionally, used to distinguish the military from everybody else. Increasingly used these days to distinguish the military and the police from everybody else. The usage helps to further militarization of the American police, particularly the federal and big-city ones, and to reduce the degree to which police officers see themselves as peace officers, a term which is becoming quaint.

Illegal alien. See "undocumented worker."

Illegitimate: A term still used by conservatives to describe children born out of wedlock. Like the almost-moribund "bastard," the term is under fierce assault by persons who believe that having a child with no father is merely a life-style choice, rather than an irresponsible, immoral act virtually guaranteed to inflict severe harm on the child.

Quite a lot—perhaps the fate of modern civilization—hangs on whether illegitimacy continues its rapid progress of the last three decades towards becoming normal, and thus no longer illegitimate. One difficulty for defenders of the word "illegitimate" is that the adjective attaches to the child, who of course has no control over the circumstances of his birth, rather than to his mother to his (biological, non-)father, who are the real illegitimate actors.

Piker. See "welsh."

Rental car, a very good: Attorney General Janet Reno explained that the since the tanks at Waco were not carrying ammunition, there were nothing more than "a very good rental car" for delivering items to the Branch Davidians’ home. I have, however, never been able to rent a car, even a very good one, which is suitable for bashing down walls of a building, destroying rooms known to contain women and children and killing them with falling rubble, and firing massive quantities of chemical warfare agents banned by law from international warfare.

Modern federal law enforcement is permeated with similar euphemisms to paper over violence and militarism. Breaking down someone’s door is a "dynamic entry." When concussion grenades are thrown at "civilians" all that results in "a rapid expansion of gasses."

Undocumented worker: I have a valid driver’s license, but I sometimes forget to pick up the wallet containing the license when I leave home in the morning. When I drive to work without my driver’s license, I am an "undocumented driver." Persons who want to ignore the problems caused by illegal aliens now call them "undocumented workers," as if they were merely missing a bureaucratic slip of paper. But people who have entered the nation unlawfully are not merely lacking in paperwork, they are lacking in legality, and thus are properly called "illegal aliens."

Unfortunately, the "undocumented worker" euphemism may actually turn out to be useful. Since Congress is seriously considering plans to crack down on the illegal 1.5 percent of the American population by making every American get permission from the federal government to be hired at a new job, there soon may be plenty of legal American citizens (at least 650,000 every year, the Cato Institute estimates) whose records will be screwed up by the federal bureaucracy, and who therefore will be unable to obtain a job.

War on Poverty/Crime/Drugs/etc.: Government in a civil society is not in the business of conducting domestic wars. The use of "war" for domestic policy objectives promotes a mentality of limitless resources, ruthlessness, and refusal to accept anything less than total "victory."

Welfare Benefits: The word "benefit" is derived from the Latin "bene facere," meaning "to do well." The word "welfare" comes from the Old English "wel faran," meaning "to fare well." The current American system of "welfare benefits" is grossly misnamed. Too often, recipients of "welfare benefits" are not provided with something that helps them "to do well" or "to fare well." Instead, "welfare benefits" often pay women to bear children that they will have difficulty raising properly. "Welfare benefits" discourage beneficial acts such marriage and work, which have always been the cornerstones of escaping poverty.

In another inversion, corporate welfare is applied not only to laws which give money to corporations as an act of charity (such as trade adjustment assistance), but also to laws which simply reduce a company’s tax burden. Unless one presumes that all property belongs to the government, reducing how much the government takes from private parties is not "giving" those private parties "welfare."

Welsh. In a strenuous display of sensitivity, President Clinton last September apologized for uttering the words "It is basically saying you’re going to be a piker and welsh on your debts." Etymologists are unsure of whether "welsh" (swindle) actually derives from a slur on the Welsh, and thus whether the word should offend Cambrian-Americans.

"Piker," on the other hand, meaning a person who does things in a petty or stingy manner, is a slur first applied to people from Pike County, Missouri, and then to Missourians in general. The slurrers were Californians annoyed by the influx of rural Missourians during the Gold Rush. I guess that absence of an apology means that the 1996 Clinton campaign has already written off the Missouro-Californian vote.

If President Clinton really wants to make sure that his choice of words doesn’t divide Americans along ethnic lines, he ought to stop referring to Blacks as "African-Americans," since, as Theodore Roosevelt put it, "There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism."

David B. Kopel is an associate policy analyst with the Cato Institute, and research director with the Independence Institute, a think-tank in Golden. His most recent book is "Guns: Who Should Have Them?"

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