Shipping migrants north is wrong. But is it “trafficking in human beings”?

When Florida Governor Ron DeSantis loaded 50 people onto planes and dropped them off at Martha’s Vineyard last week, he was part of an activity in which human beings were treated as property to be controlled and exploited — and it is, as Hillary Clinton said on MSNBC, “literally human trafficking.

Where is it?

Merriam-Webster’s definition of the term adds a few words, calling it “organized criminal activity in which human beings are treated as property to be controlled and exploited (such as being forced into prostitution or involuntary labor)” [emphasis added].

We can dismiss the parenthesis as merely an example, but “organized criminal activity” is central to the definition, and in DeSantis’ case, much harder to prove. But that didn’t stop Clinton and others (including charlie christwho runs to knock DeSantis down) to invoke the incendiary term trafficking in human beings.

How about another dictionary?

The Oxford English Dictionary calls human trafficking “the action or practice (especially as organized criminal activity) of subjecting persons to forcible relocation or coercion in order to benefit from their labor or services, usually in the form of forced labor or sexual exploitation; trafficking in or recruitment of human beings for the purpose of exploitation”. This time, “organized criminal activity” appears in parentheses, which we can again dismiss as an example that will not apply in all situations. But “in order to benefit from their work or service” is an essential expression, inseparable from the rest of the definition. Sounds like an apt description of what DeSantis’ Florida congressional colleague Matt Gaetz would have asked forgiveness for, but not what DeSantis asked of his migrant political props.

Other dictionaries go further. Cambridge Dictionary Calls human trafficking “the crime of buying and selling people, or making money from work they are forced to do, such as sex work.” Dictionary.com is not a real dictionary, but it is still popular, and it defines “the illegal practice of procuring or trading in human beings for prostitution, forced labor or other forms of exploitation”.

The problem is not that the dictionaries are always correct. They are not. They evolve and adapt, they disagree with each other, and by necessity, they only add words long after those words are established in our lexicon. The term human trafficking first appeared around 1904, but as recently as 2006 Merriam-Webster did not yet include it. Most modern English-language dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive: they describe how words are used, rather than prescribing how the words should be used.

Dictionaries wouldn’t call what DeSantis did “human trafficking.” But that doesn’t make it any less reprehensible. If you control and exploit humans for your own political gain, the fact that you don’t run a formal crime syndicate doesn’t make you a noble patriot.

Moreover, those on the left and right have already dehumanized the people who were dumped unceremoniously in Massachusetts. Most news reports refer to them collectively as “migrants”, instead of describing where they came from, why they came here, or even – gasp – their names. As I’ve written before, when you refer to people by what they do – “the one who migrates” – rather than who they are, it’s much easier to dismiss their humanity.

If you’re going to criticize DeSantis, be specific about it. While Clinton, Crist and others use a term that only inflames, they are rightly accused of exaggeration – and they lost an opportunity to speak out against injustice.

When you use a term that feels correct instead of one that is correct, you devalue your own point.

Exploiting people and trafficking anti-immigrant rhetoric to score political points is bad enough. You don’t have to call it literal traffic to prove how bad it is.

The Grammarian, also known as Jeffrey Barg, examines how language, grammar and punctuation shape our world. Send your comments, questions and Funk & Wagnalls to [email protected].

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