Will “self-deportation” self-immolate?

Here’s a term you may have heard thrown about in recent political discussions of immigration: self-deportation.

It gets written out several ways (usually self deportation or self-deportation), but I’m going with the hyphenated form.

There was a lengthy discussion of the idea and the politics of self-deportation on the radio as I was driving to work earlier this week (The Takeaway, 4/24/2012). It actually included a brief mention of the origin of the term (as a joke, in an editorial cartoon, and then picked up by Mitt Romney). But there was no discussion of the actual or potential utility of the word. (It wasn’t a discussion of usage, so that’s not a surprise.)

With a little further research, I found this article on the origins of self-deportation. It was, in fact, created by a couple of California comedians as part of a protest of immigration policy. Since then, it’s managed to creep into the lexicon, and has actually been taken up as a weird sort of policy initiative by some on the right.

Stranger things have happened than someone adopting a phrase in earnest without realizing that it was meant as a joke, so there’s no automatic reason to think this won’t become a more commonly used term.

But when I encounter words like this, used in a sort of self-protective bubble of ignorance, my thoughts go in a different direction. Instead of thinking “hey, that’s a great new word!” or “hey, that’s an awful new word!” sooner or later I get around to thinking “wait a minute – we’ve already got perfectly good words that mean the same thing. Why has this new one come into being?”

In other words, I soon ask myself: is this a word that actually has a good use, which we should embrace? Or is it a waste of effort? There are already common words that serve the purpose, so what’s going on with this one?

In the case of self-deportation, what’s wrong with using “emigration,” instead? Isn’t that what you do when you move from one place to another and cross a border? Or maybe the word that’s needed is simply “migration?” Or, if the user wants to be very direct about it, why not use a clear and easy term like “move” or “leave?” Self-deportation seems like an unwieldy and unnecessary mouthful with these alternatives hanging about.

This kind of abandonment of common terms for new ones happens a lot (do linguists have a word for the process? If anyone knows, drop me a line). I’m not sure if it’s ignorance, or boredom, or simply jumping on the bandwagon of a new word, but people frequently seem to favor ugly new words over perfectly good old ones. “Mentee” is a good example that comes to mind. What is a “mentee?” It’s simply one who is taught, or who has a mentor. It’s an ugly backformation from mentor, but it’s recognized by most, if not all, dictionaries (OED lists a first use from 1965, and gives it a US origin). But when ever I read or hear “mentee,” the first thought that comes to mind is, “why not just use student, or pupil, or if you want to be highbrow, protege?” They all seem like better words to me.

You might think that “mentee” would only be coined by folks with limited education, or small vocabularies. Not so.

A dozen years later, Bohr’s German mentee Werner Heisenberg (and then shortly thereafter, Schrödinger himself) showed how to apply the quantum concept to more complicated atoms, and quantum mechanics was born. (Science News 178.11 [2010])

That use was by the editor in chief of Science News (Tom Siegfried, “Clash of the Quantum Titans”). Ugly as the word might be, if someone of that standing is using it, the point is moot.

Still, when it comes to new words that fill in for perfectly good old ones, do we really need a mouthful of buzz like “self-deportation?”

One might argue that we do: that there’s a subtle shade of meaning being captured here; that self-deportation isn’t actually migration or emigration, but denotes more of a going on the lam sort of thing – that ‘self-deporters‘ are getting out of town one step ahead of the law.

One could just as easily go in the other direction, and take the position that self-deportation is actually an example of doublespeak: it qualifies as deliberately evasive or deceptive language. After all, no one self-deports: a person can be deported by another, or they can flee (or otherwise skedaddle). But self-deportation is, sadly, like so much of the terminology used by the right lately, coded language. I’m not up to cracking that code entirely, but I can’t help but read it as threatening: “take this opportunity to self-deport, because if you don’t we’ll come looking for you.”

In other words: like the Godfather, we’re making you an offer you can’t refuse. Get out while the getting’s good.

Which is very close to my advice for using this phrase: don’t. Unless you’re trying to deliberately obscure what you really should be saying. If that’s the case, then many of us would rather that you didn’t say anything at all.

Note: Doublespeak is a word you might want to give George Orwell credit for, but first use actually seems to have occurred several years after 1984 was published. He uses the term doublethink in the book, but not doublespeak, although the concept probably grew out of it.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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