Search This Blog

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Euphemisms: Mealy-Mouthed PC Terms on the Rise

Frankly, I think getting too PC (politically correct) can interfere with clear, concise English. But, we writers need to be aware of PC trends so we can make conscious choices and avoid faux pas whenever possible. And there are lots of PC-isms we out there we need to know.

But here's an example of  what I consider just too, too PC: An academic at one of the universities that uses my husband's reference book, What Foreigners Need to Know About America From A to Z ( objected to the word "Foreigners" in the title. My husband was aware of that difficulty when he chose that title. Some consider it pejorative. The thing is, there is not really a perfect substitute in the English language. "Aliens" calls up an image quite different (and for some even more negative) than "Foreigners." These academics who used to call their students from other countries "foreign students" now call them "international students," but that term wasn't quite right for this book. Some people this book is written for may be emigrants. Second generation citizens. Tourists. People who aren't Americans who conduct business with Americans both in the US and in their own countries. And on and on. Though not a perfect term, "foreigners" was the most inclusive word he could find.

I think that often attitudes about words tell more about the person who objects to them. When did it get to be a bad thing to be a "foreigner?" In America, even Native Americans were once from somewhere else. Or, more importantly, when are we going to get over the idea that being a foreigner is a bad thing.

Now the LA Times reports that the respected AP (Associated Press) has decided to discourage its reporters and editors from using the word "illegal immigrant." Some find the term offensive. The Times reports, "They prefer 'undocumented' arguing that 'illegal' is dehumanizing and lumps border crossers with serious criminals."

So the venerable AP stylebook warns against the term, though they, too, couldn't find a suitable substitute for all cases. Instead they suggest a kind of "working around it" approach—which may be an adequate alternative in the body of a written piece but may be tough when coming up with a title or headline.

There are all kinds of phrases and words that we should be leery of. We know—instinctively or because we writers need to keep up on such things—most of them. But sometimes the style suggestions are just plain mealy mouthed. Meaning that they are diluting our language without offering anything that works as well.

Decisions. Decisions. Just remember. "Undocumented" isn't going to work. Some people have documents, just not the right ones.

But the part of all this—the part that I love—is the idea a senior manager at Associated Press put forth: "It's lazy to label people. It's better to describe them." I have to agree with that. I was labeled all my life and hate putting labels on people. It's a little like putting them in a box, locking it, and throwing away the key.

And, just so you know, LA Times and The New York Times will soon be weighing in on the "illegal" and "undocumented" issue. Can't wait to see what they come up with.

Note: In the 1970s, the LA Times style book preferred "illegal alien." Times do change…gradually. Thank goodness, mostly for the better. I'm going to accumulate style choices, possibly for a new book. If you have ideas for me, please let me know at


Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits, consults. and speaks on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success (How To Do It Frugally series of book for writers). Learn more about her other authors' aids at , where writers will find lists and other helps including Great Little Last-Minute Editing Tips on the Resources for Writers page. She blogs on all things publishing (not just editing!) at her Sharing with Writers blog. She tweets writers' resources at .


Holly Jahangiri said...

Oh, for the love of God.

If you are an "illegal alien" (there's probably a statutory definition of such) then you are an "illegal alien." Political correctness be damned - you're in this country (or have remained in it) illegally.

Even "the N word" simply stems from the Spanish word for the color "black." It's all in the tone, all in the tone. And to those who think you cannot distinguish tone from the written word, I say, "Either you're reading the wrong authors, or you're not reading carefully enough."

Sometimes labeling and describing are interchangeable. Foreign is - well, foreign. What the heck else would you call it? When we're in Rome, we're foreigners. Big whoop. Illegal is "against the law" - it's just one word, not three.

What should be politically incorrect is deliberately debasing, taunting, dismissing, and generally being hateful towards other human beings. Even accidentally offending them just says something about the speaker or writer - not about those he refers to. I'm totally opposed to scrubbing our language clean of anything that might upset someone else. I am completely in favor of choosing one's words more carefully and thoughtfully.

Chaz DeSimone said...

I'm half dago wop, half kraut, and full American. I love being all that, but if I had to pick one that I'm a bit ashamed of, it's the American. For that's labeling me as part of a society of sheepish followers who are scared of their own shadows, afraid to call a spade a spade, and who let anyone and everyone - illegal or not, immigrant or not, foreigner or native - walk all over them.

Nikki said...

Totally agree Holly and I like Carolyn's comment that the reaction tells us much more about the person, than about ourselves. Sure there are some people who will use any term in a derogatory way - but to assume or jump to the conclusion that any term a person doesn't like for some reason is being used in a derogatory way is ridiculous and a sad statement about the people who choose to be offended. Our country has a lot of diversity - from one region to another, we can enjoy and learn from that diversity or we can choose to find offense where there is none. I prefer to learn from the differences -

Morgan St. James said...

I definitely agree that the tone or way in which something is said can change the meaning radically. That's one of the exercises I did during a workshop for authors on how to give a good reading.

Take the same sentence or phrase and say exactly the same words a few different ways--with praise, disdain, excitement or boredom for example. The difference in perception is amazing.

As for trying to adjust everything you say to be "politically correct," it can be taken to such extremes it is laughable. I'm all for not being offensive, but also for saying what you mean--not a ridiculously sanitized version.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

I love that this got the ire up for so many of my writing friends. I liked Nikki's phrase " sad statement about the people who choose to be offended" and I think Holly alluded to that, too. Obviously I have a lot of writing fellows who think writers (and everyone else) would be better served by weighing their words carefully--and not letting the nit-pickers dictate to them! (-:

J Q Rose said...

Thank you for this thoughtful discussion on being PC. I always think of that term as something a politician worries about, not writers. But I guess there are situations for writers when they do have to consider their audience and intentions.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Exactly, J.Q.! And it seems as if politicians could use some good writers/editors to help guide them. I've sure seen some atrocious faux pas. I do have a sort of guideline. If the accepted PC word or phrase is actually better for a writer's needs, then go for it. Otherwise, carefully consider it to see if some meaning is lost or to see if
if the PC-ism isn't as accurate as you'd like it to be.

Holly Jahangiri said...

It won't be long till Orwell's vision of 1984 is a reality.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Holly, a book could be written on the parts of 1984 that already have come true! You up for it?

Great Editing Is Great Marketing

Your First Marketing Offense: Write and Edit Great Query Letters