Q: I was just reading an email announcement from the BackStory website in which “immigrate” was used where “emigrate” should have been. Is this a case of sloppy copy-editing? Or is this distinction no longer considered meaningful by editors?
A: The verbs “emigrate” and “immigrate” have had different meanings for hundreds of years—and they still do, according to the six standard dictionaries we’ve checked.
We haven’t seen the announcement from the website of the public-radio program BackStory, but the use of “immigrate” for “emigrate” in professionally edited writing is relatively rare and probably the result of sloppiness.
As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, the misuse of these words “may be less of a problem than is often suggested,” adding, “Our evidence shows that almost no one does, at least in edited prose.”
This is how Pat describes the difference between “emigrate” and “immigrate” in her grammar and usage book Woe Is I (3rd ed.):
“EMIGRATE/IMMIGRATE. You emigrate from one country and immigrate to another. Grandma emigrated from Hungary in 1956, the same year that Grandpa immigrated to America. Whether you’re called an emigrant or an immigrant depends on whether you’re going or coming, and on the point of view of the speaker. A trick for remembering: Emigrant as in Exit. Immigrant as in In.”
The first of these verbs to show up in English was “immigrate,” from the Latin im- (into) and migrāre (to move). The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1623 dictionary by Henry Cockeram: “Immigrate, to goe dwell in some place.”
“Emigrate,” from the Latin ē (out) and migrāre (to move), showed up a century later. The OED’s first citation is from a 1782 treatise by Thomas Pownall on the study of antiquities and history:
“The surplus parts of this plethorick [printed phletorick] body must emigrate.” (The phrase “plethorick body” here refers to a plethora of population.)
Merriam-Webster’s usage manual notes that “emigrate” and “immigrate” make “a case in which English has two words where it could easily have made do with only one.”
“The two words have the same essential meaning—‘to leave one country to live in another’—and differ only in emphasis or point of view: emigrate stressing leaving, and immigrate stressing entering,” the M-W editors add.
Since we have two words, we might as well use them as they were intended.