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Catching up with readers’ letters
Jul 15, 2011
I’ve a backlog of readers’ letters to answer, but first I want to say I’ve noticed a change in the kind of letter and call that I receive. I think most readers now have computers and like to find many answers themselves — word and saying origins, for example. Today’s letters seem to be mainly concerned with specific usage.
At the same time, I’m amazed and delighted that so many readers care about language. One such reader is Marianne Reid.
Reid has noticed an incidence of language change. She wrote, “I know emigrate and immigrate mean different things but I guess they don’t teach that any more because I never hear emigrate used these days.”
Emigrate, emigration and emigrant all contain the idea of departure. Immigrate, immigration and immigrant have to do with arrival.
For example, my grandparents emigrated from Scotland in 1902. Once in Canada, they joined other recently arrived immigrants to this country on the long rail journey from Halifax to Saskatchewan.The prepositions from and to are important — you emigrate from but you immigrate to.
As Reid has observed, the meaning difference has almost completely disappeared. Most people use immigrate whether referring to departure or arrival.
Our country hasn’t helped us retain the difference. We have a Department of Citizenship and Immigration today. In the past, we had a Department of Immigration and Colonization. Also, once, Winnipeg had an Immigration Hall. There seems never to have been any government bureau specifically to assist those departing Canada — that is, no Department of Emigration.
The words related to immigration and emigration are all built around “migrate,” a word defined as “to move from one place to another, especially to leave one’s country to settle in another.”
Although, today, we primarily think of migration as referring to birds and animals, that isn’t the first meaning listed in the OED. As well, the animal connection is more recent. Migrate, as it involves people, entered English in 1697. Regarding animal life, we first used this word in 1753.
Another related word, migrant, often now attached to “farm worker” or “farm labourer,” was first used in the 1600s but entered common vocabulary during the Depression. At that time, it usually referred to “Okies,” those displaced Oklahoma farmers who migrated to California to find work.
Migrate, and all the words evolving from it, originate in the Latin migrat/migrare (to move from one place to another).
Emigrate, also from Latin emigratus/emigrationem (to wander forth), indicates the idea of departure. Emigrate entered English as a verb in 1778, but emigration came in 1649.
Immigrate, 1623, is from the Latin immigrat/immigrare (to migrate).
It’s not difficult to see the relationship among all these words, and that may be another reason the meanings of emigrate and immigrate have become blurred. English is famous for disregarding blurry differences.
In my opinion, Reid has put her finger on a clear example of language change. Even if the difference between emigrate and immigrate is still taught in school, most people ignore it.