Originally published by The Washington Post
Look up “immigrant” in different languages, and you’ll notice something interesting: The word sounds nearly the same in lots of tongues.
“Immigrant” is “immigrant” in Afrikaans, “imigrant” in Bulgarian and “yímín” in Chinese. Filipinos use the term “imigrante;” in Japanese it’s something like “imin.” The Russian version of immigrant is, essentially, “immigrant.” In Spanish, it’s “inmigrante.” In Sudanese, it’s “imigran.”
The explanation for this linguistic quirk is simple and fascinating: The word — and concept — was invented in the United States in the early 19th century.
Before then, of course, people moved from place to place. Our fore-species traveled out of Africa and across Asia nearly 2 million years ago. Members of the Roman Empire bounded across the globe; barbarian invasions beat them back. In the 1600s, colonialism brought about 240,000 Europeans to American ports. The history of the world is a story of dislocation and movement.
But for the most part, these great waves of people were called emigrants, or migrants. They were defined more by their decision to leave than by where they ended up.
That changed in 1829, when Noah Webster coined the term “immigrant” in his “American Dictionary of the English Language.”
Of course, he didn’t pull the word out of thin air. In a footnote, Webster credits the term “immigration” to the Rev. Jeremy Belknap, a Congregational minister and author of “History of New Hampshire,” a three-volume compendium written in 1807. Belknap used the term only as a footnote though, noting simply that “the verb immigrate . . . is used without scruple in some parts of this volume.” There was no definition attached.
A few years later, linguist John Pickering incorporated “immigrant” into his short “vocabulary . . . of words and phrases peculiar to the United States.”
“Immigrant’ is perhaps the only new word,” he wrote, “of which the circumstances of the United States has in any degree demanded the addition to the English language.”
Neither man, though, really offered a definition. That would fall to Webster. In his dictionary, he included the term immigrant along with commigrate and emigrate. His linguistic analysis of the prefix (and his nationalist impulses) brought him to this definition: “to remove into a country for the purposes of permanent residence.”
Webster’s definition boasted two key innovations: It made immigration about arriving somewhere new, not leaving. And it was, by definition, permanent.
That conception stuck. As expert Neil Larry Shumsky writes in his excellent paper on the subject, “Noah Webster and the Invention of Immigration,” nearly every subsequent dictionary has adapted that definition, nearly word for word. Webster, in effect, had coined one of the most important political terms in American life. He had done so at a moment when the concept of the nation-state was becoming more and more central to our understanding of our selves. The 19th century rise of nationalism brought with it a nasty streak of ethnocentrism. Some people belonged. Some did not.
Of course, Webster was writing before the mass migrations of the 19th century. He had no idea that immigration would define the United States for centuries to come, or that we’d still be fighting about it today. But as Shumsky writes, Webster unwittingly laid out the terms of the debate:
“By telling Americans that immigration involves coming from another country, Webster set up an us-versus-them opposition, foreigner against native-born. By telling Americans that immigration is permanent and involves the intent of residence, Webster encouraged them to fear that in time they might be displaced, their cities overrun and their jobs jeopardized.”