AS A GENERAL principle, serious politicians should avoid using the words "crap" and "bunk": It doesn't speak well for their rhetorical skills. But perhaps Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) should also consider staying away from the word "multiculturalism," which he referred to as "crap" and "bunk" on a radio program last week.

The trouble with multiculturalism is that the word means different things to different people. To some it implies a radical departure from traditional systems of integrating foreigners into this country, a refusal to teach children American history and the enshrinement of Spanish as a de facto official language. To others it just means tolerance. From the published excerpts of Mr. Ehrlich's radio interview, it seems he thought he was denouncing multiculturalism in the former sense, but he made it sound as if was denouncing multiculturalism in the latter sense. After all, his comments were part of his response to a remark made by state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), who had just announced that he would no longer eat at McDonald's because he had encountered a cashier there who could not speak English. Mr. Ehrlich said that his own views were "very similar to the comptroller's." In the context, it sounds as if Mr. Ehrlich would also refuse to eat in any restaurant where a staff member does not speak English. We have to assume the governor didn't mean anything quite so bigoted and offensive.

The truth is that most immigrants to the state of Maryland are desperate to learn English. The fact that some don't has very little to do with the radical "multiculturalism" found on the fringes of academia and in bad textbooks and everything to do with how hard they are working (at McDonald's, among other places) and the lack of English courses. If Mr. Ehrlich wants to order Big Macs from people with a command of the English language, he should find a way to eliminate the backlog of Maryland residents -- 2,000 in Montgomery County alone -- who are waiting to take English classes. That would speed up the assimilation that the governor says he favors a lot faster than throwing crude insults at cashiers.