The e-mails that arrived in response to a June 25 piece about how to refer to "illegal immigrants" confirmed my hunch that this is a vexed topic.
The reader feedback made me realize that we don't have a very good word for "foreigners," either; that is, a word to do the work that "foreigner" used to do before it began to sound pejorative.
"Foreigners" sounds like a word from my childhood, used to describe a kind of person that we Wonder Bread eaters in the heartland didn't know too many of. It suggests men who button their top shirt button even when they're not wearing a tie and never put their knife down as they dine.
"Foreign" is a strange word; it carries its silent "ig" concealed like a cold-war spy within. Indeed, a look at the etymology and history of the word suggests that its spelling has been getting more complicated over time. It has been acquiring extra letters since the Middle Ages. Eventually it will probably be spelled "phoreigghhenne."
Ted Turner of Turner Broadcasting, the founder of CNN and a generous benefactor of the United Nations, is famous for banning almost any use of the word "foreign" on his news networks. This idiosyncrasy is key to his "embrace the world" philosophy. Exceptions are made only for such official titles as "foreign minister."
A search of the Factiva database - which indexes a vast range of news organizations around the world - shows what looks to me like relatively infrequent use of "foreigners," especially by the most influential sources.
There are some glaring exceptions out there, though. The British network ITV actually has a show called "Dumb Foreigners," evidently a sort of "Candid Camera" of the global village. It caused a stir recently, not because anyone objected to calling other groups "foreign" or even "dumb," but because it showed the St. Andrew's cross flag of Scotland as if to suggest Scots were "foreigners." This gave offense in some quarters. "Do we Scots not pay income tax, national insurance etc. to Westminster?" one aggrieved Scot ranted online.
"Alien" has just had a little moment in the limelight because of last week's Supreme Court ruling in the Alien Tort Statute case. Can you tell from its name that the law goes back to 1789 or what? It's been downhill for "alien" since. Sigourney Weaver finished it off, and now the term has come to seem "more appropriate for visitors from Mars and other outer space locations," as an immigration lawyer put it in an e-mail to me.
Is "stranger" the word we're looking for? Some other languages seem to use this word - or rather their version of it - as a relatively neutral term for those who hail from across international borders. But "stranger" carries too much baggage - too much of an edge of "danger," with which, I'm just now noticing, it rhymes all too perfectly.
Another option here might be "exotics," but that sounds like a reference to tropical fish from the pet shop, or one of those insect-eating plants that the state ag department is afraid will run amok in the suburbs.
Seriously - the trouble with "foreigners" may be a politically correct squeamishness about identifying anyone as "other." Or our discomfort may reflect the way everyone's horizons have been broadened. "Nothing human is alien to me," said the Roman playwright Terence. And the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And the African-American poet Maya Angelou. The time may come when this is everyone's motto.
• This column appears with links at: weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy