Illegal Persons

In its August 28 2007 issue, Le Monde titles, for instance, “Baisse du nombre des clandestins africains qui accostent aux Canaries”, which can be translated as “The number of African clandestines arriving to the Canary Islands decreases”. In its same day’s issue, The Guardian publishes an unrelated piece of news titled “Call for selective amnesty for illegal migrants”.

A Google News search in French with the word “illégaux” gives today, for the first ten hits, seven for persons (foreigners, immigrants) and three for other things (traffics, downloads, copies). In Spanish, five hits among the first ten for “ilegales” apply today to persons (three to immigrants, the other two to gangsters and sellers) and five to other things (flights, construction sites, shops, procedures). In English, for the first ten hits for “illegal”, seven apply today to people (four to immigrants and one to aliens, plus one to miners and one to loggers), and the rest to things or activities.

We can say of an activity that it is illegal or clandestine, but rarely of a person. We rarely say, for instance, of a thief or of an assassin that he or she is “an illegal person”, that he or she is “illegal” or, even worse, that he or she is “an illegal” or “a clandestine”, as if the word was a noun. Of course, we might rightly consider that, say, a killer performs, while killing, an illegal activity. But we call illegal or clandestine the killing, not the killer. It is intriguing that the press contributes to an exception with immigration in such a way.


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