Sunday, November 28, 2010

Getting Immigration Backwards

The weekly "Free for All" letters column in The Washington Post accommodates readers who want to vent about something they had read in the Post during the previous several days, often taking issue with grammar, spelling, or punctuation usage.

In yesterday's Post, letter-writer Gib Durfee objects to the way the Post had used "immigrate" in a sentence from an AP story on November 19, in which WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was said to be considering "immigrating to Switzerland."

Durfee goes on to say:
Even if readers didn't take Latin in school, they should know that a person emigrates to a new country and immigrates from the old.

It's just a matter of to and fro.
Durfee has it exactly backwards.

This would be clear especially to someone who had taken Latin in school, because they would know that "e-" at the beginning of a word suggests "outside of" or "from," as in "exit" or "exoskeleton." By contrast, the prefix "im-" suggests "in," "to," or "inside" -- compare "implode" and "explode," for instance.

In a Raleigh News & Observer column on language usage from August 2008, journalist Pam Nelson addresses precisely this issue and cites the AP Stylebook, which says:
emigrate, immigrate: One who leaves a country emigrates from it. One who comes into a country immigrates. The same principle holds for emigrant and immigrant.
Nelson goes on to explain that
[Usage expert Bryan] Garner points out that "immigrate" means to migrate into or enter (a country) and "emigrate" means to migrate away from or exit (a country). That distinction is at the heart of a mnemonic I have heard: emigrate means exit; immigrate means enter. [Theodore] Bernstein wrote that "emigrate" needs "from."  [Diana] Hacker makes the same distinction.
I really can't fault the letter writer for missing this distinction; perhaps he learned it backwards from a Latin teacher in high school.

I can, however, fault the Post's editors -- especially the "Free for All" page's copy editors -- for failing to note that the Post's (or the AP's) usage was correct from the outset, and for choosing to run a letter that took them to task for actually being correct.

What's puzzling to me, as well, is that as of 7:32 p.m. on Sunday -- more than a full day after the letter appeared in print -- not a single Post reader has commented on the newspaper's web site about the confusion exhibited (from the Latin, "to hold out") by this letter.  Are there neither emigrants nor immigrants in the Washington Post's circulation area?