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The AP's complicated word-association test

In what may be the greatest victory to date for the sophisticatedly asinine organization "No Labels," the Associated Press has embraced a new policy against "labeling people." For instance, its widely used and influential style guide is being purged of such terms as "schizophrenic" in favor of "diagnosed with schizophrenia."

Most of the chatter about the AP's move has been over its decision to drop the term "illegal immigrant." AP Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll explained that the change on "illegal immigrant" was based on the no-labeling policy. "We concluded that to be consistent, we needed to change our guidance," Ms. Carroll said.

This was the AP's first mistake. Consistency is an impossible standard to apply to the English language. I myself wish people would write about a "feckful foreign policy," or an "ept remark," or "ert" gasses.

"People of color," last I checked, is an accepted term to describe nonwhite minorities. But grammatically and stylistically it is a long-winded way of saying "colored people." But none save the ignorant or the ill-willed would bend to the demands of consistency and use the latter term unless writing about the anachronistically titled National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The AP advises that, "Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant." Acceptable variations include living in or entering a country illegally or without legal permission."

But if consistency is the AP's lodestar, what are we to say about "criminal defendants"? Or, for that matter, what to do about jaywalkers, plagiarists or pedophiles? If a schizophrenic must be called a person "diagnosed with schizophrenia," shall we now refer to everyone as someone whom someone else has described as something? Where does that end?

Context matters. "John Smith, a jaywalker, cured cancer today," is an idiotic lead. "John Smith was the latest jaywalker to be hit by a bus on Main Street today," makes more sense.

It's absolutely true that it is unfair to summarize a person's life by his status as an illegal immigrant. Illegal immigrants can be fathers, mothers, artists, comedians, scientists, etc. But in a discussion of illegal immigration, it's hardly preposterous to describe someone as an illegal immigrant.

Activists and others in favor of banning "illegal immigrant" say the term tarnishes all immigrants. As Sergio Martinez, a 25 year-old resident of Detroit and a noncitizen, told the Michigan news site MLive, "I definitely felt like it was very derogatory and created a stigma for immigrants."

Well, maybe not for immigrants so much as for illegal immigrants, which is sort of the point, right?

In my experience, legal immigrants in particular respect the "stigma" against illegal immigration, which helps explain why they came here legally in the first place. If I were to write about a "pedophile football coach," I suspect that very few people would assume I was stigmatizing all football coaches.

Moreover, "stigma" is the wrong word. Stigma implies social condemnation, a public disgrace or reputational stain. "Illegal" is a legal term, meaning, er, illegal. For some reason, a lot of people insist that the "illegal" in "illegal immigration" is in effect an unfair slander. But we live in a country where illegal and immoral only occasionally overlap in the popular mind. How immoral it is to immigrate illegally to the country is debatable, but that it's illegal to do so isn't debatable, it's axiomatic.

Ironically, if we actually erased the difference between the legal and illegal immigrant, the result would be to stigmatize legal immigrants unfairly.

That won't happen, of course, because we'll still need a word for people who move into the country unlawfully. And whatever term we choose will soon enough be denounced as "stigmatizing."

Which brings me to the No Labels crowd. As far as I know, they haven't sounded off on this particular issue at all. But they do represent an approach to public policy that says our disagreements are the result of getting too caught up with ideological "labels." Put the labels aside, they say, and look at all of the problems we can solve! Invariably what this really means is, "If you drop your principled objections to what we want to do, we can finally do what we want to do."

Among the myriad problems with this insipid sophistry, the simple fact is that we need labels to think clearly and make distinctions. To its credit, the AP Stylebook still recognizes this. It just made things a little harder for everyone.

Jonah Goldberg's column is distributed by Tribune Media Services. He is the author of "The Tyranny of Clichés," which will be released in paperback April 30. You can write to him by email at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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