Nothing will throw you into an emotional tailspin like reading a quotation from Trump consigliere Stephen Miller and thinking, “Yes! I agree!”

And yet when it comes to language, Miller knows what he’s doing.

“The struggle over the lexicon is actually the central struggle,” the puppetmaster behind many of Donald Trump’s cruelest policies told the New York Times last week. And damn if he ain’t right.

Language of persecution and hate permeated government websites, press releases, and laws for much of the last four years. As the Times detailed, it’s because of Miller’s linguistic influence that President Biden has had so much work to do since taking office to change the language of government to reflect values of dignity, equity, and fairness. Biden’s team is making quick progress undoing the damage.

Among the changes since the inauguration:

  • The Department of Homeland Security now refers to noncitizens instead of illegal aliens and criminal aliens, phrases the Trump administration used over and over again to literally alienate those from another country — even in reference to, say, a 6-year-old Costa Rican.

  • Packing executive orders with zeitgeist-y words like equity, a word that — according to Factba.se, which has cataloged all of Trump’s unscripted remarks — Trump never once uttered unless it was in reference to money.

  • Including Tribal people among the Interior Department’s stakeholders — and capitalizing Tribal, a typographical bridge that even the Elements of Indigenous Style doesn’t cross.

  • Allowing mention of climate change, which the Environmental Protection Agency is finally able to acknowledge again.

  • When you contact the White House, you’re asked if you want to identify your pronouns, and options include they/them, other, and prefer not to share.

Each of these represents a sea change in how government accepts groups, individuals, and ideas, and their collective impact is enormous.

Take, for example, the abandonment of illegal alien: The word alien, which dates back to the 14th century, is laden with negative connotations. The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of alien includes the clarifiers “hostile, repugnant.” And the word illegal, when paired with immigrant, has anti-Semitic roots: Before World War II, the term illegal immigrant originally referred to “a Jew who entered or attempted to enter Palestine without official permission during the later years of the British mandate.”

Moreover, when used properly, the adjective illegal refers to an act, not a person. Defenders of the term illegal argue that it’s appropriate because it’s used to describe people who have crossed a border unlawfully. But you don’t refer to a murderer as an “illegal,” despite the fact that they’ve committed an illegal act. Yet decades of xenophobia have designated immigrants as the only people who could be considered “illegal” themselves. This warping of language stigmatizes foreigners in a way that we don’t employ even for those who commit the most heinous acts.

This stigmatization is deliberate, and long before Trump, people used it to justify draconian policies. Fortunately, every day we discover new ways that inclusive language can have the opposite effect. Each time that inclusive language is codified in government documents, the United States becomes a bit more accepting.

He might not like it, but even Stephen Miller would have to agree with that.

The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and ethnophaulisms to jeff@theangrygrammarian.com.

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