Jewish World Review Sept. 12, 2005 / 8 Elul, 5765

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

A flood of words | Dear Offended,

It was wholly a pleasure, if a bit of a mystery, to receive your letter taking issue with my referring to the refugees from the Gulf Coast as, well, refugees.

You seem to believe that a refugee must be a foreigner seeking haven in another land, but it can mean anyone seeking refuge. (ref-u-gee, n. a person who flees from home or country to seek refuge elsewhere, as in a time of war or of political or religious persecution — Webster's )

Or, to give another example, as a result of some natural disaster —like a flood. Note how The New York Times reported the last Big One to strike the South, the historic 1927 flood. This headline is from its edition of May 6, 1927:

More Towns Submerged/Red Cross Reports That 323,837 Refugees Are Receiving Aid . . . .

The Times was still using the word last week and seemed to have no intention of sacrificing it to the fickle gods of political correctness. Ditto, the Associated Press.

Maybe this is another case of connotation versus denotation. The association of the word with political or religious or ethnic refugees may have obscured its basic definition: someone seeking refuge.

But there's something else going on here besides a scholarly debate over the language. Just what is not easy to pin down. After all, there's nothing shameful about being a refugee. You note, Ms. Offended, that your grandfather was a refugee from Austria at the turn of the last century. (Who knows? He might have met mine, who came from Poland at about the same time —if your grandfather, like mine, traveled in steerage.)

As always, Jesse Jackson is a big help at times like these, when we need to come together to help these refugees/evacuees/our fellow citizens instead of fighting over how to refer to them. The Reverend Jackson claims "refugee" is a racist slur.

Huh? This is news to William Safire, who writes the "On Language" column for The New York Times Magazine. He sounded puzzled: "A refugee can be a person of any race at all. A refugee is a person who seeks refuge."

But apparently Mr. Safire is going to knuckle under; he said he'll stick to "flood victims" in his own writing. (Naturally, being such a mod writer, a veteran of both advertising and then the Nixon administration, he's chosen the most ungainly term of all.)

The moral of the story: The first victim of any imposed political orthodoxy is the language, for there will always be those who want to trim it to fit their own specifications. And when language is limited, so is thought. The end result is not English but Newspeak.

Jesse Jackson's accusation brings to mind those illiterates who some years ago objected to the word niggardly, confusing it with the racial slur instead of recognizing it as a synonym for miserly. And so another perfectly good word was lost. Were those censors acting out of malice or just ignorance, and why not both? The two so often go together.

This much should be clear: A language does not grow by restricting its vocabulary, any more than a culture grows by shutting out the world. By now Katrina has devastated lives; let's not let it wash away the language, too.

Just about the only thing this little hubbub proves is that no disaster is so overwhelming that it can't afford some of us grounds for a little socioeconomic agitation.

You note, ma'am, that Oprah Winfrey also objects to the use of the word in this context, and I would never doubt the lady's goodwill, just her lexicology. At last count, she'd been joined not only by the Reverend Jackson but by the always ideologically with-it Boston Globe, sheepishly followed by the Washington Post and Miami Herald. And finally, also taking umbrage at using the word "refugee" in these circumstances was that master of the English language, George W. Bush.

I rest my case.

—Inky Wretch

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. All the quotations in this column were culled from Tuesday's edition of the Democrat-Gazette. Send your comments by clicking here.

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