Why hasn't the term Latinx caught on the way African American did in the late 1980s?
African American became a cherished replacement for black right around when Jesse Jackson embraced it at a news conference, in 1988. Latinx, fashioned to get past the gender distinction encoded in Latino and Latina, has not replicated that success since its introduction, in 2014. It has been celebrated by intellectuals, journalists, and university officials, and even used by Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. But in one poll, only 2 percent of America’s Latinos said they preferred the term.
The reason for the difference is familiar to linguists who study how languages change. Although it may seem that new elements of a language settle in when regular people imitate famous or prestigious people, more generally, new language comes from below. That is, tomorrow’s words and constructions are ones that even today feel not swanky but ordinary, like “us.” One used to say that a house “was building.” Being built began as a neologism associated with people of lesser education, but was eventually adopted by everyone else.
Although Jesse Jackson helped it along, African American came into vogue because it felt useful to a critical mass of black people. Black could be interpreted as a negative, sinister alternative to white. Plus, black, as the English-language successor to Negro—the Portuguese word for “black”—had been imposed from without, by slave masters. African American was created from within and worked as a linguistic cousin to the philosophical embrace of Africa as black America’s mother continent.