There Was a Time When Words Had Meaning

Pardon an old lexicographer (Dr. Johnson: “a harmless drudge”) but could The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Washington Post and everyone else please stop abusing the words “populism” and “migrant.”

To read the papers these days — excuse me, I mean our screens — people, even editors, seem to think that populist means right-wing.

It does not mean that.

It means, crudely, appealing to ordinary people. Whatever that means. In the United States, populism has a history and other accumulated meanings.

Populism began as a loosely organized left-wing movement in the late 19th century, promoting farmers’ co-ops, public irrigation districts and credit unions. The movement was absorbed into the Progressive Party, which was absorbed into elements of the two major political parties that burden us today.

Oh, I’m sorry, did I say burden? I meant strangle.

Though they never elected anyone to a major office, Populists and the Progressive Party were a powerful political force for a while, and they forced the major parties to react to it.

Today the word is used so loosely that it has no meaning at all.

Bernie Sanders is a populist, though I don’t recall anyone calling him that.

Major newspapers, websites and TV today use the word as a synonym for right-wing and/or Drumpf. That’s inaccurate and deceptive, and they should cut it out.

Right-wing or left-wing, fine. But we should not assume, or infer, as everyone seems to do today, that populism means right-wingers. It perverts the meaning of the word.

Call them what they are: right-wingers.

And please, let’s stop using the word “conservatives.”

Democrats are conservatives today. Republicans are right-wingers.

(Lexicographers take note: The terms left-wing and right-wing derive from the old Spanish congress, before Generalíssimo Francisco Franco’s right-wing coup of 1936 set off the Spanish Civil War and World War II. The liberals sat on the left, conservatives on the right.)

“Migrant” and “immigrant” is an easier call.

An immigrant goes from one country to another.

A migrant roams around: migrant farmworkers, for example.

People fleeing the Syrian civil war are not migrants; they want to settle down in another country as immigrants.

People fleeing Central America, and the desolation the United States and our client states have wrought there, are not migrants. They do not want to wander around. They want to settle down and work in a place where they can raise their children with some shreds of dignity.

And a person who has lived and worked without papers in, say, Chicago for 20 years, and is arrested by immigration police on a random Tuesday, sure as hell is not a “migrant.”

How about “person”?

Some Bedouin and other tribes in North Africa live a migrant existence. So did Apaches and Comanches a few centuries ago. That was their lifestyle. But immigrants are not the same as migrants, and the words are not interchangeable.

Language is power.

The ability to control other people’s language is reprehensible power.

I give you the old Soviet Union, and Russia and China today. I give you any Drumpf news conference when Yamiche Alcindor or any other black woman asks the Fuehrer a question.

I give you George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.”

There is no reason for what remains of our free press to truckle and toady to the tyrants at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Far be it from me to pile on the U.S. newspaper business. But listen to me, my fellow citizens, news reporters and editors across the land: You will not survive by truckling to fascists.

Trust me on this.

The world has been there. Done that.

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