This is a transcript of episode 53: The Away Team.
Read more and listen at theallusionist.org/migration.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, sweep the remains of language's winter pelt off the floor.
Let's gear up for today's episode with some word history, sponsored by Blue Apron, who concoct new recipes each week, gather the ingredients, box them up and drop them off at your door for you to cook fresh. Next week I’ll be on a trip to Boston, and when I am jetlagged I am not good at making decisions about anything, so I’ve ordered Blue Apron to be delivered to my Airbnb and thus I won’t have to figure out what to cook, I’ll have healthy options ready to go, and I won’t end up eating a dinner of pretzels from a gas station because I don’t know where to buy ingredients nearby. And because it takes less than forty minutes to whip up a Blue Apron meal, there’s not too much danger that I’ll fall asleep midway through the process face down in a hot frying pan. Take a look at upcoming recipes, and if you’re in the contiguous United States get your first three meals free, at blueapron.com/allusionist.
Thanks to Blue Apron, here’s the etymology of ‘alien’. Used to mean ‘extraterrestrial’, it is officially cited from 1953, when it appeared in the magazine Analog Science Fiction and Fact. That sense had likely been in use in science fiction for a while before, three decades or more probably - ‘a being from another planet’ was an extension of ‘alien’s preexisting meaning of a person from another place, which goes back to the mid-15th century or so. The word can be traced back to Latin, ‘alius’, ‘another’ or ‘different’, and the noun ‘alienus’, meaning ‘not one’s own’, ‘a stranger’, ‘a foreigner’.
It’s widely thought to be offensive when used about humans now, and some states and countries have made an effort to replace the wording in their laws. But in the 60s and 70s ‘alien’ was encouraged as a neutral term to refer to humans on the move, as so many of the alternatives in use then were racial slurs. However, by the 1990s, alien itself was offensive, and came to be substituted ‘illegal immigrant’ and eventually ‘undocumented immigrant’, or ‘foreign national’ - less loaded terms... for now.
The language around human migration is ever shifting, and that’s where we’re going in this episode. On with the show.
EMMA BRIANT: Recognizing someone's humanity is crucial. Calling someone a migrant, calling someone an asylum seeker, calling them a refugee. These are official categories; but in many ways, depending on how they use them, they can change and become more negative. And they also preference how officials are sorting them over their very basic humanity.
HZ: This is Dr Emma Briant, a lecturer and researcher in journalism studies.
EMMA BRIANT: I'm a specialist in propaganda and political communication and the representation of migration and security and inequality in the media.
The category of migrant is one that embraces a lot of different groups. This is simply just somebody who is moving one place to another, and that might be internally within a country, or it might be between countries.
HZ: What does 'immigrant' mean?
EMMA BRIANT: 'Immigrant' is relational. So it's somebody who's coming into the country. So when the British media is talking about immigrants, they're talking about people coming to Britain. When the French media is talking about immigrants, they're talking people coming into France. ‘Emigrant’ means people leaving, so people who migrate from Britain to France or to anywhere are emigrating to that country. So it is just about the direction of travel basically.
HZ: And what’s the distinction between ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’?
EMMA BRIANT: A refugee is somebody who, according to the Refugee Convention, is fleeing war and persecution, torture, this kind of thing; political oppression. And that is a category they have to prove they are in that position. So somebody who is trying to become a refugee is called an asylum seeker. So they haven't had their case heard yet. And once their application has been heard, if it's worked successfully and it's not rejected, then they become a refugee, and they are entitled to be treated the same as any other citizen in the country, so they should be entitled to everything another citizen would get. These kinds of categories get used very indistinctly, and I think there's an awful lot of misunderstanding.
HZ: For many years, Emma Briant has been studying how the media portrays migration, and in the British press certainly, there’s a tendency to use the relevant vocabulary inaccurately; and whether intentional or not, this misuse can cause a lot of damage.
EMMA BRIANT: All of these terms are becoming pejorative, where they once were more neutral. We hardly found anybody in our sample who was referred to as a ‘refugee’. We even found somebody who was referred to as a ‘former asylum seeker’. They were a refugee. They had had their asylum case heard, and they had won their refugee status, but they got referred to as a 'former asylum seeker', because asylum seeker becomes - it delegitimates them, and it's a negative category in the media. These categories have become more and more negative. Even ‘refugee’, which you hear more often now, after the refugee crisis, it has become a very negative term; and 'migrant' too, even though it was once neutral, has become more negative.
HZ: In 2016, the Daily Mail had front page headlines about migrants 56 times, the Daily Express 70. Whenever I looked at a shelf of our tabloids, I saw screaming in big block capitals, frequently accompanied by misleading information and vastly inflated numbers, which were sometimes later corrected in a retraction in far tinier print than the original headline.
Migrant seized every six minutes
Britain’s asylum seeker madness
Illegal migrants flooding into EU
Migrants keep pouring into EU
Migrants pay just £100 to invade Britain
Migrant mothers cost NHS £1.3bn
Migrant crisis will cost £20bn
Cover-up over migrants sneaking into UK
Britain faces migrant ‘disaster’
Britain faces new migrant crisis
We can’t stop new migrant surge
We can’t stop migrants
Migrant crisis getting worse
No end to migrant crisis
“So-called refugees” - that one was actually a headline in the Mail on 3rd February 1900. Casting aspersion on migrants is not a recent preoccupation for them.
EMMA BRIANT: The negative associations with these categories really do cloud the way we analyze the facts. And I think the important takeaway is that including as much of the context of why people are travelling, and trying to see them as human beings who are affected by these social and economic pressures and political transitions that are taking place around the world, is the key issue.
HZ: Too bad, Emma, that the tabloids don’t seem so inclined to shout indignantly about how climate change or war cause displacement of humans. They also don’t tend to use these sorts of terms about Brits abroad.
EMMA BRIANT: Actually people who are British, white Brits especially, who are going to live in Spain or going to live in Saudi Arabia and working for the oil industry or, you know, moving to Australia or whatever: they refer to themselves and are often referred to by the media as ‘expats'.
HZ: ‘expatriate’, noun: one who chooses to live abroad. Sense attested in 1902. Prior meaning: ‘one who has been banished’, from French ‘expatrier’, derived from Latin ‘ex-’, ‘out of’, and ‘patria’, native country. Unlike ‘immigrant’ and ‘asylum seeker’ and ‘refugee’, ‘expat’ is a word that has become more benign with time.
EMMA BRIANT: Expatriates. Now, they're emigrants; they're immigrants to the countries that they have gone to. But 'immigrant' tends to be only applied when it's dealing with people we don't like. So it tends to be never us. You know, it's others. So it tends to be often applied to people with a different skin colour; people who we see as as economically less well-off; who might be coming for reasons we don't like; and so on. So I think people from other parts of the world are never referred to as expats. And frequently the term 'illegal' gets used and bandied around when nothing illegal has happened. So in relation to 'immigrant', 'asylum seeker' and so on, they will frequently prefix that with 'bogus' or 'illegal', and that should never be happening because these people are not illegal; people cannot be illegal anyway. Sometimes their actions can be illegal. And that's another matter. But the way that these terms get used, they get associated with these negative labels and it clouds the way that we see those terms.
HZ: Be vigilant for the linguistic tendencies that steer one’s interpretation of information regarding the international movement of human beings. One pernicious trend is to describe a number of refugees or migrants as a swarm or flood.
EMMA BRIANT: 'Flooding'; 'deluge'; 'waves of immigrants' and so on, yeah. Numbers are used to conflate different categories; but also they use an awful lot of rhetoric that amplifies the effect and makes the incoming migrants sound really scary and like they are bringing disaster with them. Now, that's very evocative language and it amplifies the sense of fear of them arriving, of course.
HZ: And this language of amassed creatures or of nature’s force, when used to describe people, makes them seem not like individuals - not even humans at all.
EMMA BRIANT: Talking about people as cockroaches and so on, rats, vermin, parasites, leeches: all of this kind of imagery dehumanizes people.
NIKESH SHUKLA: On the one hand, you have this sort of language that strips away agency and the right to a body, or the right to having a physical presence in the world, because you become the swarm, this faceless swarm; you're not a separate entity yourself. And then, you know, when people are quite carelessly lumped in as an asylum seeker - everyone has the right to seek asylum - or refugee or any even an immigrant. These words don't have negative connotations. So you have to wonder where the negative connotations - or the sort of laden burdens around these words - where they're coming from.
I'm Nikesh Shukla. I'm an author and the editor of The Good Immigrant.
HZ: The Good Immigrant is a collection of essays about race, immigration and being descended from immigrants, the writers are top notch, and the book has won a bunch of awards. Read it.
HZ: Are you an immigrant?
NIKESH SHUKLA: No, I'm a child of an immigrant. My mom and dad were immigrants to this country; but I think, being brown, decisions are made about me as I walk about.
HZ: “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?”
NIKESH SHUKLA: When people ask me where am I from - "No no no, where are you really from?" - I always just tell them I'm from London. Because the truth is much more complex than they would be able to understand.
HZ: And also much more simple than they've assumed.
NIKESH SHUKLA: Yeah exactly. But when someone says, "No, where are you really from?" what they're saying is "where your parents from?" and what they want you to say is, "Oh, my parents are Indian." But neither of my parents are. So it's not an easy answer. Because, you know, India only came to came into existence in 1947. So we were from Gujarat, I guess. My dad was born in Kenya. My mum was born in Yemen. Neither of them ever lived in India. If I went to India where I'm third generation - I feel so far removed from that. Dad is Kenyan in the same way that I'm British. My mum is a Middle Eastern and the same way that I'm British. We're all British Asian but where are we really from? Who knows?
HZ: My dad is from South Africa. But both his parents are Lithuanian. So he's not really from South Africa. But he's never been to Lithuania. So where are we from? However I don't get lumped in with the kind of poisonous rhetoric that is now characterizing our political debates. So it's not really all about the movement of human beings, is it?
NIKESH SHUKLA: No, it's about the colour of your skin and the accent you speak in. At what point do we become British? And what what does British even mean?
HZ: What does British even mean? To me, what it is is encapsulated by the English language: this untidy, idiosyncratic, fascinating hodgepodge that bears the influence of multiple invasions and Britain’s colonialisation and foreign policy.
Take out the words Britain imported, borrowed or stole from countries across the world.
Assassin. Alcohol. Shampoo. Gingham. Amok. Juggernaut. Thug.
Take out the French that arrived with the Normans in 1066.
Justice. Marriage. Instrument. Parliament. Religion. Tax.
Take out the Scandinavian words, that mark the Vikings’ multiple incursions for nearly 300 years before the Normans took over.
Egg. Sky. Skull. Cake. Anger. Thursday.
Take out the Germanic words that landed around 500AD when the Angles invaded, followed by the Saxons and the Jutes.
Water. Meat. Woman. King. Bird. Think. Dog. Death.
Take out the Latin, that proliferated during Norman rule but had been introduced here a millennium before that, when the Romans invaded and stuck around for nearly 500 years, and brought Greek with them too. Of course, if you lose the influence of those classical languages, you lose at least 60% of modern English, plus most scientific and technological vocabulary - oh, and the word ‘Britain’ itself.
Take all that away, and what's left?
Thanks to Emma Briant and Nikesh Shukla. Emma’s book Bad News For Refugees is a years-long study of the political, economic and environmental contexts of migration, and how migration has been treated in the media and in politics.
Nikesh Shukla is the author of novels including Coconut Unlimited and Meatspace. He’s the editor of The Good Immigrant collection of essays, which is one of the best books I’ve read in years, and he runs the youth magazine Rife, which is seeking pledges now at unbound.com to publish a new collection by writers under the age of 24. I’ve already pledged for mine.
I’ll link to Nikesh and Emma’s work at the allusionist.org/migration.
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halation, noun: the spreading of light to form a fog round the edges of a bright image in a photograph or on a television screen.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. Thanks to Cheeka Eyers, and Eleanor McDowall and Martin Austwick for their editorial help - Martin also composed the music you heard throughout this episode. Communicate with me at allusionistshow on Facebook and Twitter - and you can find every episode of the show, along with extra material, and the full dictionary entry for the word of the day, at theallusionist.org.