A dictionary defense doesn’t always cut it

HUD Secretary Ben Carson and his vision of an "immigrant."

HUD Secretary Ben Carson and his vision of an “immigrant.”

Before getting to Ben Carson, the new secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and his comparison of slaves to immigrants, let me mention a useful lesson I learned as a newspaper copy editor:  In the public arena, it’s futile to use a dictionary to try to defuse a screw-up.

This point was driven home when I worked at the Sacramento Bee and the copy desk, the vaunted “last line of defense,” allowed the word “niggardly” to appear in print. I believe this occurred in the late 1990s, a time when that word was starting to attract notoriety. For example, a white aide to the mayor of Washington, D.C., used the word in reference to a budget, and a colleague raised such a stink about racial insensitivity that the aide lost his job for a time.

Perhaps seeing the usefulness of verbal outrage, a black elected official in Sacramento blasted the Bee for printing the word and stirred up her constituents at a fiery gathering. Predictably, this caused big-shot editors to march out of their glass offices and demand an explanation. They dismissed the copy desk’s dictionary defense – “niggardly means stingy or meager and has no etymological connection to the N-word – and said the desk should have anticipated the negative reaction.

Well, maybe so. Even though dictionaries and stylebooks didn’t give usage warnings on “niggardly,” as they often do today, we were tone deaf. We should have known the word, in addition to being stilted, was trouble.

I can’t imagine what Carson’s excuse must be, if he has one. I assume he has PR people that vet every public statement. As part of a 40-minute address Monday on the theme of America as “a land of dreams and opportunity,” Carson talked about immigrants who had arrived at Ellis Island. Then, referring to slaves, he said:

“There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less. But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters, might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.”

The remark was met with swift outrage online. On Twitter, the comedian and actress Whoopi Goldberg recommended Carson watch the 1980s miniseries “Roots.” Trevor Noah, host of “The Daily Show,” said: “Calling slaves immigrants is like saying, ‘It’s not kidnapping, that person just got a free vacation in the basement!’ ”

Carson initially doubled-down on his statement by invoking the authority of a dictionary definition. In a Twitter post, he said, “An immigrant is ‘a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country. ’ ”

When that failed to quell the tempest, Carson acknowledged on Facebook that immigrants had choice in what happened and slaves “were forced here against their will and lost all their opportunities.”

Carson’s remarks, coupled with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ description of the founders of historically black colleges as “real pioneers” in school choice, make me think the Trump administration should hire a first-rate copy desk. There are a lot of excellent, unemployed copy editors available for work these days.

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One Response to A dictionary defense doesn’t always cut it

  1. Tom Quinn says:

    Carson acknowledged on Facebook that immigrants had choice in what happened and slaves “were forced here against their will and lost all their opportunities.” <<I'd also question Carson's word choice. One has to have opportunities before one can lose them.

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