Who owns the English language and who gets to choose which words are unacceptable?

In the news business, such questions are not merely philosophical. They’re practical. Earlier this year, Jose Antonio Vargas began asking news organizations to retire the term “illegal immigrant” from their news stories, calling it “inflammatory, imprecise and, most of all, inaccurate.” Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He’s also an undocumented immigrant (a term he uses to describe himself), whose mother sent him to live in the United States from the Philippines when he was 12 years old. He believes that news outlets, which are in the business of details and precision, have a responsibility to avoid using the blanket term “illegal” to refer to the estimated 11.5 million people who live in the United States without documentation.

“It’s just the laziest term you can use,” he said in a phone interview. “That’s my beef with it.”

According to the Immigration and Nationality Act, being illegally present in the United States is a civil violation, not a criminal one. As such, Vargas takes issue with the word “illegal” as an umbrella description of undocumented immigrants. Moreover, he believes the term “illegal immigrant” is inherently demeaning to the people it describes -- implying that the person is illegal, not the act itself. “You wouldn’t call someone who runs a red light an illegal driver,” he said.

Speaking at a news conference in San Francisco last month, Vargas announced to reporters that he had started a nonprofit organization to monitor use of the term “illegal immigrant” in the news media. And his main targets? The New York Times and the Associated Press, two of the country’s most influential conversation starters.

Vargas voiced his concerns with the Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who he said was open to a conversation about the issue. Sullivan spent two weeks gathering consensus on the term through input from readers, advocates and some of her colleagues at the Times, including the paper’s immigration reporter, Julia Preston. The verdict, as Sullivan pointed out in an Oct. 2 blog post, is that “readers won’t benefit” from the Times banning the term illegal immigrant. “It is clear and accurate,” Sullivan wrote. “It gets its job done in two words that are easily understood.”

Vargas was disappointed with the decision, saying it reflects the narrow prism though which news outlets view the immigration issue. “Readers won’t benefit?” he asked. “Which readers?”

IBTimes reached out to Sullivan for a comment, but she declined. A Times spokesperson said that Sullivan will let her blog post stand for her comments on the topic.

In that post, Sullivan challenges Vargas’ argument that using “illegal” as a modifying element is inherently dehumanizing. “Just as ‘illegal tenant’ in a real estate story … is brief and descriptive, so is ‘illegal immigrant,’” she wrote. “In neither case is there an implication that those described that way necessarily have committed a crime, although in some cases they may have.”

Vargas said that such reasoning ignores the cultural nuances that have long framed the immigration debate in a racial context. “The term 'illegal tenants' doesn’t refer to a particular group, but ‘illegal immigrants’ is racially charged,” he said. “When the New York Times says ‘illegal immigrant,’ we hear ‘Mexican.’”

Vargas added that the term may also contribute to the government’s longstanding inaction on immigration policies in desperate need of reform. “Once you call something illegal, the conversation ends there,” he said.

The Times has argued that proposed alternative terms such as “undocumented immigrant” are imprecise and euphemistic, but Vargas countered that the goal should be to avoid blanket terms altogether and report on a person’s immigration status based on a person’s particular situation. (For instance, President Obama’s deferred action program offers a temporary reprieve of deportation for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. In such a case, an undocumented immigrant would not be here illegally.) The Times, for its part, acknowledges that the term “undocumented” may be useful in certain contexts. As immigration reporter Julia Preston pointed out, issues such as the deferred action program are giving the term “a new currency.”

As far as the Associated Press is concerned, the organization has had an official entry for “Illegal Immigrant” since 2004, when post-9/11 border security came into national focus. The AP most recently tackled the term in Nov. 2011, when it updated its “AP Stylebook” with a more detailed description:

“Illegal Immigrant: Used to describe someone who has entered a country illegally or who resides in a country in criminal or civil violation of immigration law … Unless quoting someone, the AP does not use the terms illegal alien, an illegal, illegals or the term undocumented.”

In a statement at the time, Dave Minthorn, the AP’s deputy style editor, argued that the term undocumented is imprecise in that it could imply that an immigrant simply doesn’t have his or her papers in order. “We believe the AP language is precise and neutral in our use of 'illegal immigrant,'” the statement said.  

Editors as Gatekeepers

Grammar and style guides are notoriously slow to adapt to new words and evolving language, particularly in the news business. News editors say the cautious pace is necessary -- an effort to avoid adopting jargony buzzwords and flash-in-the-pan phrases too quickly, only to see them fade into lexical oblivion. However, the downside of that strategy is that publications risk falling behind convention, thereby tripping up their readers with outdated or overly stodgy terms. It was just last year that “The AP Stylebook” included entries for Twitter-related terms such as “unfollow.”

Sullivan, in her defense of the term illegal immigrant, was quick to point out that she does not set policy or oversee changes to the New York Times’ official style manual. That responsibility falls on Philip B. Corbett, the Times’ associate managing editor for standards, who said in an email message to IBTimes that the paper is not in the business of hastening the natural evolution of words and phrases. “It’s not our goal to lead the way or be in the vanguard of promoting or spreading changes in language,” he said. “We are mostly trying to reflect existing usage.”

Either way, as cultural preferences change with time, so does news copy -- eventually. When describing people of African descent, the New York Times once used “colored” where it now uses “black,” and yet neither term is particularly accurate or precise. The former simply fell out of favor, largely because it was deemed insulting by a younger generation who came to view it in a discriminatory context.

In his 2003 book “The Blank Slate,” the linguist Steven Pinker referred to this phenomenon as the “euphemism treadmill” -- whereby a word is introduced to replace an offensive word and then, over time, the new word itself becomes offensive. Pinker is not convinced that “illegal immigrant” is inherently dehumanizing. “The syntactic argument against ‘illegal immigrant’ is bogus,” he said in an email message. “We have electrical engineers, who are not themselves electrical, and an American historian need not be American.”

Sticks and Stones

For evidence of Pinker’s treadmill concept, one needs only to look at medical terminology, where official diagnoses are often coopted and flung around as slurs. Consider “imbecile,” once an official medical term applied to people with an I.Q. between 26 and 50. A century ago, it was common in news copy. In one article from Dec. 9, 1894 -- titled “Teaching the Imbeciles” -- the New York Times reported on a special-needs school in Brooklyn where “feeble-minded pupils read, write, sew and embroider.”

But the word fell out of favor, and now, years later, that same pattern of linguistic evolution is happening with one of its clinical replacements, “retardation.” Today, retardation is all but absent in clinical settings -- considered longhand for the offensive “retard” -- and yet the word still occasionally shows up in newspapers, including the New York Times.

Louise Kinross thinks it’s time that changed. The editor of Bloom, a magazine on parenting kids with disabilities, she called the word a demeaning slur. “Reporters should avoid value-laden words that dehumanize people, and ‘retarded’ is one of those words,” she said.

After reading a Sept. 30 Times article in which a man was described as “retarded,” Kinross wrote a letter to the Times expressing her dismay. According to a blog post detailing the exchange, Kinross said that the Times justified its use by pointing to the fact that retardation is still an official diagnosis listed in the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual.

And indeed it is, according to the most recent version of the APA’s “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” or DSM. However, there is a good chance that will change in May 2013, when the latest edition is released. (The manual is rarely updated and has seen only five major revisions since it was first published in 1952.) This past spring, editors of the manual proposed changing “retardation” to “Intellectual Developmental Disorder,” citing the fact that “retardation” is no longer used by the international medical community or in federal legislation. Kinross said the Times should not wait for the DSM revision before it retires the word.  

“As the parent of a child with intellectual disability, it pains me that a newspaper considered the best in the world continues to cling to archaic words that suggest people like my son are less than full human beings,” she said.

Kinross understands that some people will see her efforts as an attempt at censorship, but she insisted that she does not “believe in ‘policing’ language.”

Vargas, too, stressed that he was not looking to be a rabble-rouser in his effort to convince the Times to retire “illegal immigrant.” He went out of his way to commend the paper and Margaret Sullivan for their openness and willingness to discuss the topic thoughtfully.

But the Times maintains it stance. Its notable resistance to change, epitomized by the static, text-heavy front-page layout that earned it the unflattering nickname Gray Lady, endures, while smaller news outlets are shifting their positions. Many college papers have sworn off the term illegal immigrant -- as the Daily Californian did this week -- and some mainstream outlets, such as the Huffington Post, have done so as well. Vargas said it’s ironic that the New York Times, the same publication in which he “came out” as an undocumented immigrant in a 2011 essay, is now giving him the most resistance to that label.

“You can’t be static on this,” he said. “This is an evolving issue about who we are and what we choose to call ourselves. I’ll continue to have that conversation. And the New York Times is going to have to make a change.”