The Colorado House of Representatives voted to remove the words “illegal alien” from their state laws and substitute them with “undocumented immigrant” or “foreign national.”

Stephen Lebsock, the Democratic Representative behind the bill, says that “aliens are from other planets. We should not be referring to human beings as aliens,” according to the Denver Post. And the radio station K99 in Colorado quotes him as saying that the term “illegal alien” is “outdated and hurtful language.”


HIGH SCHOOL PROMPT Illegal alien. Undocumented worker. Foreign national. Learn how connotations affect our language and then weigh in on the topics.This struggle with language is nothing new. For instance, in the 1960s and 1970s, the word “housewife” was considered rude. After all, wives aren’t married to or stuck in their houses. The better-sounding term that came out of that debate was “homemaker.”

Even the word “sin” has taken a hit. In his book Whatever Became of Sin, psychiatrist Karl Menninger asks not only where the word “sin” has gone but also why the concept of sin has disappeared from our culture. He believes that ditching the concept of sin has had a negative effect on society because it keeps people from finding real relief and solutions to their guilt, depression, or wrongdoing. Other nicer-sounding words we may use for “sin,” “iniquity,” or “transgression” are these: problems, issues, difficulties, and shortcomings, all of which have softer meanings than the hard-hitting word “sin.”

Here’s my point (yes, I have one): Words have connotations. Connotations aren’t about what the words mean in a dictionary. They’re about how people feel about them, how they react to them, what sort of image they conjure up in the minds of readers or audiences.

For instance, those who work outside the home for a living can be called breadwinners, employees, workers, consumers, or even wage slaves. Some of these have positive connotations; others have negative ones.

Living in a world of positive connotations leads us to another term. When a nicer-sounding term is substituted for another, it’s called a euphemism. For example, would you rather buy a used car or a pre-owned car? Did you tell a lie, or did you simply relate a divergent reality to someone?

In That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis, we find a government organization titled N.I.C.E, or National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments. That sounds bland, even harmless. However, N.I.C.E. is bent on taking over a town and performing other nefarious schemes while their euphemistic title soothes people into believing that nothing awful will happen.

Words mean something. They can be loaded or neutral. Be aware of the terms and their meanings that people use as they debate issues. Those who own the language will win the arguments.

Now it’s your turn: You get to weigh in on the issues brought up in this post by choosing one of the options below.

1. A new term

In a letter to the Denver Post editor, Steve McCulloch proposes the term “illegal resident” because it seems more precise to him than other terms. What do you think of his proposal? If you were to change the term “illegal alien” to something else, what term would you choose. Defend your choice in a paragraph.


2. Characterize a person

Women who stayed at home instead of entering the workforce were called “housewives,” then “homemakers,” and now “stay-at-home moms.” Each term brings with it a subtle change in meaning and a feeling for the person and her worth.

Create two new terms for a check-out clerk. The first term will have a positive connotation. The second term will have a negative connotation. Now do the same thing for a sports referee or umpire.


3. Alien

The word “alien” has had many meanings throughout the years, as the above quote from Stephen Lebsock shows. Research the meanings by looking them up in very old dictionaries (print or online versions) and in more recent dictionaries. Draw some conclusions about your findings and then write up your findings and conclusions.


4. We are aliens?

The Bible says we are aliens in a foreign land. In the middle of the Hall of Faith (Hebrews 11), we find that those spiritual heroes understood that they “were aliens and strangers on earth.” Peter addresses his first letter to “strangers in the world” and urges us “as aliens and strangers in the worlds to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul” (I Peter 2:11).

What does it mean to be “aliens and strangers on earth” as Christians? How does this change the way we view our lives here and live our lives? Give one example of how you are an alien and stranger on earth.


Interested on another post on connotations and the use of language? Follow this link.


Copyright © 2016 by Sharon Watson
Photo credit: Castenoid / Fotolia
Image credit: Sharon Watson

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