The U.S. census is an enterprise so dull that the sheer size and scope of the dullness are exhilarating. Just processing the data from the census of 2010 will take until the end of 2013. Amid the deluge of numbers and slick visualizations, the language of the project will be largely forgotten, which is for the best in the case of the survey questions themselves. The use of the word Negro in question 9, the awkward designations for persons of “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin” in question 8, and the lack of options for transgender individuals in question 6 all sparked predictable controversies last year.
Worth saluting, by contrast, is the bizarrely compelling rhetoric surrounding the decennial questionnaire. Nowhere is the beauty of the banal so apparent as in the slogans, mailings, and brochures of the U.S. Census Bureau. The taglines churned out by its public-relations program—from you can know your country only if your country knows you (1940) to it counts for more than you think (1990)—represent each decade’s best effort to say nothing, offend nobody, and motivate everyone. Literally. The goal is to reach all 300 million people living in the United States, and motivation is key because for every 1 percent increase in participation, the government saves $85 million. That makes census sloganeering some of the highest-stakes wordsmithing around.
The sentences coined in this crucible have come to follow identifiable conventions. Their diction is almost universally simple: contractions, colloquialisms, monosyllables, and puns are the norm, as in answer the census! we’re counting on you! (1980). The address tends to be first- or second-person, and, in the longer examples, inverted and parallel constructions are common. Consider the you can know mantra from 1940—technically an antimetabole—or 2010’s we move forward when you send it back.
Nearly all of the 2010 taglines were typical in their compliance with these rules, but they were exceptional for the charm of their hypnotic bureaucratese, and for what they reveal about how we number ourselves.
be counted in 2010. This command, masked as an invitation, neatly captures the two-sidedness of population counting in general. When groups allow themselves to be tallied, they undergo a process of fruitful objectification: they submit to the labeling process in return for the ability to make demands and receive compensation. This four-word phrase reflects that balance of flattening and empowerment because it sounds deceptively like an offer. It also embodies the tricky legal ground on which the census rests. Technically, according to Title 13, you have no choice but to respond; avoiding or falsifying Census Bureau surveys comes with a fine of between one hundred and ten thousand dollars, depending on which clause you’re prosecuted under. For political and logistical reasons, however, the fine has very rarely been enforced. Be counted—a passive construction that’s also an imperative—expresses that bind with eerie precision. Neither the enumerating agent of the U.S. government nor the you being enumerated is present in the words themselves, but the power relations are clear.
your answers will only be used for statistical purposes, and no other purpose. This elegantly vacuous reassurance is a classic. It appeared in clunkier forms in previous decades, and the new streamlined model adorned a series of notices sent from the director of the Census Bureau to American homes last spring. The repetition of purpose, which snaps shut each of the sentence’s two clauses, eviscerates the word statistical, depriving it of any discernible meaning. The result is both a truthful balm for those concerned about privacy—individual data is indeed heavily protected—and a bald-faced lie: your answers are used for the purpose of deciding how federal and state legislatures are reapportioned and how over $400 billion in resources is distributed.
it’s in our hands. The central tagline of the census of 2010 is a triumph of the idiom. Hands, the sole concrete noun, alludes to the tradition of calling roll and raising hands. The unanchored pronoun it couples the paper questionnaire to the process of tabulation itself. And our represents a shift away from the accusatory second-person language of, say, the warning from 2000 that this is your future. don’t leave it blank.
We and our, in fact, have traditionally been used chiefly for census marketing in communities of color. The 2000 motto morphed into this is our future in African American neighborhoods and es nuestro futuro in Latino ones. In 2008, it’s in our hands was tested in focus groups featuring undercounted populations, where it beat out more mystical and more prosaic alternatives like the potential of we and it’s time to make your mark. Niftily, then, the nationwide slogan for 2010 was chosen in large part by the least enfranchised.