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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

guest worker

(1980’s | bureaucratese? | “migrant worker,” “bracero”)

An import, “guest worker” is a literal translation of the German “Gastarbeiter.” Early occurrences in the New York Times confirm a German origin. Like the signifier, the signified is imported — an imported worker. In both English and German, the term is a euphemism devised to speak politely about a group of people no one really likes. Until 1980, it was used almost entirely in reporting on other parts of the world, mainly Europe, where waves of laborers from poorer countries (southern and especially southeastern Europe) moved to richer countries to fill temporary labor shortages. Early in his first term, Ronald Reagan proposed a limited guest worker program along similar lines: Mexican laborers could spend a few months here picking crops and then be shuttled home until next year. This sort of limited-time, manual and/or seasonal labor was what we thought of when we thought of guest workers for at least twenty years thereafter. Somewhere around 2000, it became possible to use the expression to talk about skilled laborers, meaning programmers and engineers, usually from Asia. Now both levels are available in everyday discussion, and there doesn’t seem to be much difference in frequency.

When presidents talk about sanctioning (now there’s a fine example of a word that can have two opposite meanings) guest workers, it’s usually one prong of an immigration strategy that also includes stricter border control and acceptance of workers who are already here illegally. In other words, we want to make it harder for people to sneak in from now on, but we know there’s not much we can do about the ones already here that isn’t incredibly expensive and incredibly intrusive. But then we need guest workers to replace the stream of illegal immigrants. Reagan and G.W. Bush both proposed a version of this plan, and so has Obama. Immigration goes right on fueling a long-simmering debate in the U.S., where second-generation immigrant groups are always ready to pull up the ladder once they get established, and there are always plenty of upstanding citizens ready to look askance at more recent ethnic arrivals. The right can appeal to national unity; the left to jobs and job security stolen from American workers (actually, right wingers often talk about jobs, too). As for the guest workers themselves — who are making their way to America the same way we’ve been doing it for 400 years, and for the same reason: it’s where the money is — they remain an easily exploited group of utterly expendable people, forever victims of injustice or worse, so destitute they must endure all sorts of privation and danger to give their families a slightly better chance of a slightly better life.

I alluded above to the class divide among guest workers, which can be roughly summed up by the difference between two U.S. workers’ visas, the H1-B (high-tech) and the H2-B (low-tech). It may be an overbroad generalization, but I find the class divide applies not only to the guest workers, but to those who use the term “guest worker.” When executives or members of Congress use the phrase today, they’re usually talking about highly educated workers, ostensibly needed to prevent the U.S. high-tech industry from collapsing in the face of foreign competition and an inadequate domestic educational system. When small-town or middle-class people use it, they’re talking about the harvesters and landscapers who take a toll on public services and depress wages for everyone, besides taking jobs away from folks who’ve lived around here all their lives. Of course, both usages are available to both sides of the divide, but doesn’t this sound like some new class-based vocabulary? Wait: You mean the same word can mean different things to the rich and the poor? When you put it that way, it doesn’t sound like a new idea at all.

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