Which Word Wednesday: Emigrate vs. Immigrate

By December 1, 2010 culture, language No Comments

It’s time for another course of Which Word Wednesday! Has your appetite grown after missing last week’s serving? My apologies—I was busy with Turkey Day prep, so WWW was put to the back burner.

So glad to have you back at my table—and if you are feeling stuffed from last week’s feast, dig out your Thanksgiving Pants:


(Do you own special feasting pants? Do share! I think of this every Thanksgiving, and it makes me giggle.)

OK, back to our word feast. This week I’m dishing up emigrate and immigrate. (mmm—tasty!) Immigrate (and its various forms—immigrant, immigration) is the more popular of the two, especially with our news coverage on the illegal immigration issue. The complexity of that problem cannot be teased out here, but we certainly can tackle the proper labeling of it.

Let’s look at the Oxford American Dictionary definitions:

emigrate :: verb
leave one’s own country in order to settle permanently in another

immigrate :: verb
come to live permanently in a foreign country

Both words describe settling into another country. And therein lies the confusion—it’s always about context.

My memory hook is to consider the movement of the immigrant/emigrant. For example, you emigrate FROM a country in order to immigrate TO another. When referring to the country of departure, use emigrate; when referring to the country of arrival, use immigrate.

I think the reason immigrate is more popular is because it is so rare that anyone emigrates from the United States. Here in the States, immigrate (and its forms) has overshadowed emigrate to the point that we rarely see it in use because we have no need of it. So let me give some context with a few usage examples:

Many people emigrate from countries that have oppressive ruling systems. These people are called emigrants by those who send them off.

Many people immigrate to countries that have greater personal freedoms. These people are called immigrants by those who welcome them.

Mark Davidson, in Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage, quips “a person emigrates with only one m from a country but somehow must acquire a second m in order to immigrate to or into another country.”1 (It’s true—you always seem to have more baggage after traveling. It multiplies in transit, like Gremlins.)

[polldaddy poll=4178709]

What’s my WWW verdict? Just because Mexico doesn’t have to guard its borders from U.S. immigrants, that doesn’t mean we should allow emigrate to slip away from usage. We need to know the word and be ready to employ it when the context calls for it.

And what’s your verdict? Do we need just one word to describe someone settling into a different country? Cast your vote and share your opinion in the comments.

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Mark Davidson, Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 223.

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