Bill Keller Will Stop Throwing the Word 'Illegals' Around So Much

Great news from the official top paper of historical world record, import, & fame, &c., the New York Times: former executive editor Bill Keller won't use "illegals" to refer to illegal immigrants in his profound-ish columns! What's the big deal? Perhaps that he was using it left and right in his column the other day and everyone got mad at him for this? Indeed, it is so.

Keller posts several intelligent notes from readers explaining why he shouldn't use "illegals," whether over grammatical concerns or its obvious pejorative ring, because Bill Keller actually needed people to point this out to him. We'd like to add one: When Mitt Romney says to Rick Perry, "You put in place a magnet to draw illegals into the state," as a pathetic but usually successful attempt at pandering, "illegals" is meant as an epithet.

But even the treasured Times style book, an arbiter of all that is good and true in broadsheet wordsmithery, could not give Bill Keller the answer he so sought:

I checked the NYT style book, and found the guidance not terribly helpful. The entry is not explicit on "illegals." It says only this: "Illegal immigrant is the preferred term, rather than the sinister-sounding illegal alien. Do not use the euphemism undocumented."

Since it doesn't explicitly rule out "illegals" — probably since most Times writers understand that it obviously shouldn't be used! — so how is Bill Keller to restrain his wayward pen? He turns to another Times arbiter, Phil Corbett, the "Times newsroom's arbiter of style and taste," for further illumination:

I had a feeling you would be hearing from folks on this one.

Yes, while it's not explicit in the style book, our practice is to avoid "illegals" as well as "illegal aliens," and on the other hand, to also steer clear of the euphemistic "undocumented workers."

I do think "illegals" as a shorthand noun has an unnecessarily pejorative tone, and it is routinely used by the anti-immigration side. I think it's wise to steer clear. We also get push back over "illegal immigrant," but to me that's just factual and neutral....

It might be worth cautioning against "illegals" in the style book entry, though if i do that, I will wait for a decent interval – otherwise some suspicious observer will assume the change is aimed at you.

Well, the change is aimed at Keller, since he's apparently the only one who doesn't understand that you shouldn't include fucking "illegals," with no trace of irony, in your writing. But now Keller will just go and brag about how he got the Times to explicitly ban a terrible epithet from its style book. What a champ.

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