Immigrants, Emigrants, and Migrants

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks:

Emigrate, immigrate, migrate.  What is the proper usage of these words?  It seems like the [use] is indiscriminate.

All three words trace their origin to the Latin verb migrare, “to remove from one place to another.” This common ancestor gives English four verbs:

migrate: to move, either temporarily or permanently, from one place, area, or country of residence to another

emigrate: (e, “out” + migrate) to remove out of country for the purpose of settling in another.

immigrate: (im, “in, into” + migrate) to come to settle in a country not one’s own; to pass into a new place of residence.

transmigrate: (trans, “across” + migrate) of the soul: to pass after death into another body.

The verbs yield several noun forms, some of which are also used as adjectives:
migration
migrant
emigration
emigrant
immigration
immigrant
transmigration

Usage examples from the Web:

There is a challenge for policy-makers to understand the obstacles migrants face in Australia.

Committee on Migrant Workers discusses role of migration statistics for treaty reporting and migration policies.

Although not common, two additional adjectives sometimes seen are immigrational and migrational.

From Multiculturalism to Immigrational Survavalism [sic] (headline at novitiate.com)
Immigrational Background Affects the Effectiveness of a School-based Overweight Prevention Program Promoting Water Consumption (title of research paper)

A common error is to confuse immigrant and emigrant. Here’s an instance when etymological information can help with spelling. Just remember that the prefix im- means “in” and that the prefix e- means “out”:

When Charles Darnay fled France to escape the guillotine, he was an emigrant. When he settled in England, he was an immigrant.

A migrant is simply on the move, not necessarily planning a permanent change of address.

Plants and animals also migrate, as do things on computers.

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2 Responses to “Immigrants, Emigrants, and Migrants”

  • venqax

    This confusion is a product of English’s confusion over what kind of language it is. The prefix IM- is variation of IN- which is Germanic and means in. The prefix E- is Latin in origin and means out. So why do we pair these at all? If we’d just say immigration and outmigration, we wouldn’t have these troubles!

  • Dale A. Wood

    Suppose that we live in an unnamed place or in Greece, and George Green moved from Greece to settle in America.
    Some of us wrote or said “George immigated to America.” WRONG, but people misuse that phrase all the time.
    George really “emigated to America.”

    Suppose that George moved from some unnamed place to settle in Canada. Then, George immigrated to (or into) Canada.

    The third case is the more confusing one. I believe that such statements should be uniformly written in “from – to” order, just the way that engineers and technologists to it, but such writers and speakers as journalists and broadcasters seem to know NOTHING about this. (Note the statement “From the Earth to the Moon”, as the translation of the novel by Jules Verne states**.) They have no idea that having such logical standards makes everything easier to understand.

    If we know that George Green moved from Greece and he settled in Mesa Verde, Arizona, then George Green emigrated from Greece to Mesa Verde. (Not immigrated.)
    “George Green immigrated to Mesa Verde from Greece” is awkward because it does not follow the logical standard of “from – to”.

    **Note that it is not “To the Moon from the Earth”.
    Also, “Charles Lindbergh flew from New York City to Paris, nonstop, in 1927” is true and is commonly stated.
    “Interstate Highway 80 runs from the Hudson River west all the way to San Francisco.”
    “Daniel Boone emigrated from Pennsylvania to Kentucky to eastern Missouri.” (The small village that grew up around his house in St. Louis County is named Defiance, Missouri.)

    I cannot explaing the use of “from – to” order in electrical, mechanical, or aerospace engineering because it would take up too much room here, and most of you would not understand it, either. Sorry….
    D.A.W.

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