Monday, March 4, 2013

Go Ahead, Say "Sequester"

What do you call something automatic, self-inflicted, and worth $85 billion in cuts to the US government and economy?

To millions of people, the answer is "the sequester." But grammar wags on Twitter and elsewhere insist the real answer is "sequestration." The former, they claim, is incorrect grammar and a fine example of DC jargon.

I'm a grammar wag too, but this is amateur hour by most of my compatriots, who often love nothing more than to tell the ignorant public they're misusing a word or misconstructing a sentence. There is actually nothing wrong with using "the sequester" to describe the automatic spending cuts that went into effect last Friday, and it's particularly brazen to claim otherwise, given that their usage of "sequestration" is as artificial as the back-formation of "sequester."

The best-known meaning of "sequestration" is the act of being sequestered (i.e., hidden away), but the political use derives (as do so many of the people in politics) from the legal sphere. In a legal dispute, when two parties cannot agree on something, some valuable assets of theirs are taken away by the court as a kind of collateral; this action is called "sequestration." That's certainly a fitting way to describe our current congressional stalemate—but also apparently one in 1985, when the idea of budget sequestration was first instituted. Specifically, the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act of 1985 provided that, if Congress authorized more spending appropriations than it provided for in its annual budget, then a series of automatic cuts would take place to balance them out.

That bill in 1985 marked only the first use of the word "sequestration" in politics, and this usage is not yet recognized by mainstream dictionaries such as the Oxford English, Merriam-Webster, or (my favorite) American Heritage. The usage that self-appointed grammar purists are disingenuously defending is made up—and only 28 years old to boot.

By definition, then, it's also government jargon, which is exactly the charge being leveled at "the sequester." If anything, "sequester" is actually more legitimate—it was invented and popularized by the general public, while "sequestration" was invented and promoted by legislation wonks. The first rule, after all, that grammarians must get used to is that usage drives grammar, not the other way around. Elites don't dictate the rules; the people who actually speak and use the language en masse do. A language is only correct insofar as people understand it. As we stand today, "the sequester" seems to be much more popular than "sequestration"; it's used five times more often on Twitter. Maybe people are attracted to the fact that it's shorter, easier to spell, and easier to say than "sequestration"—sounds like a sensible evolution of language to me. As long as we're making up terms, why don't we make one up for this particular fiscal fight that actually rolls off the tongue?

Many people's problem seems to be that "sequester" is used as a noun but supposed to be a verb. This is a silly objection. Verbs become nouns all the time, and nouns like "move" and "invite" likewise make language easier to use. No one objects to them today the way that "ask" and "get" are pilloried, but only because their use over time has cemented them as part of the lexicon. It's also hypocritical that elites get all worked up about corporate and government misuses of words, but they give a free pass and even praise to poets and playwrights who commit the same "crime." I am thinking specifically of Act III, Scene 4 of William Shakespeare's Othello, which declares, "this hand of yours requires / A sequester from liberty, fasting and prayer." Shakespeare frequently made up words—countless of which I bet are fixtures of your vocabulary—to fit his metrical patterns, and on line 40 he uses "sequester" as a one-for-one substitute for "sequestration." "Sequester" critics, please redirect your rant to the Bard.

To complain about "sequester" is to be selective and inconsistent in your application of the rules of language. At its worst, it smacks of self-righteous armchair grammarians looking to pick a petty fight. Those who take the time, however, to actually consider how language works cannot deny that both variations have their problems and yet both are still perfectly acceptable to use. Like the sequester itself, the grammatical backlash against its epithet is simply a manufactured crisis.

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