Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Letting "Sequester" Fester

CNN Money has announced that it will "steer clear" of the word sequestration, along with its snappier cousin sequester, in reporting on Capitol Hill budget negotiations, branding it esoteric jargon. That might be a good move, considering that, according to a recent poll, two-thirds of voters don't even know what sequester means. How did we get saddled with this bit of Beltway lingo?

Sequester and sequestration have been on my radar since late 2011, when I included supercommittee on my "Words of the Year" list:

The Congressional committee charged with finding a solution to debt reduction turned out to be not so super after all. Instead, to use the overworn political expression, they simply kicked the can down the road. Because the supercommittee failed to come up with a solution before the November 21 deadline, Congress is now faced with the possibility of mandated cuts, known as sequester or sequestration. If those massive budget cuts do indeed kick in automatically, look for sequester to be a contender for Word of the Year in 2012.

Turns out I was off by a year: 2013 is shaping up to be when everyone comes to grips with sequester, even if they're not quite sure what it means. It's not a term one comes across much in one's daily life, unless you're serving on a jury in a high-profile court case and you're forced to be sequestered (kept isolated so as not to have your objectivity tainted). Even knowing that sequester derives from the Latin verb sequestrare, meaning "to place in safekeeping," doesn't get you very far in understanding its use among D.C. lawmakers.

The budgetary meaning of sequester and sequestration can be traced back to 1985, when Congress was considering the legislation that would become the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act. The law sought to rein in the federal deficit by imposing across-the-board budget cuts if certain targets weren't met. The triggering of automatic cuts was dubbed the "sequestration process," since it would take the power of making tough budgetary decisions away from Congress. Thus, it was somewhat similar to an old legal sense of sequestration: "seizing property that belongs to someone else and holding it until profits pay the demand for which it was seized."

In the congressional wrangling of '85, sequestration often got shortened to sequester, shifting what was typically a verb to noun status. Sen. Phil Gramm, for instance, said on Oct. 3 of that year, "If the Congress acts on an alternative, sends it to the President, and the President signs it, that alternative savings plan is substituted for the automatic sequester." Commentators picked up on the new jargon, as when Douglas Feaver wrote in the Washington Post on Dec. 19, 1985, "When the 'sequester' comes it would be applied against the pumped-up figures for defense and farm spending and the straight-line figures for the other departments that were not lucky enough to get their own appropriations bill."

In Roman law, the sequester was the third party who was temporarily given control over a disputed piece of property until the argument was settled. But as I pointed out to CNN Money, there's some history to treating sequester as a noun in English equivalent to sequestration — even Shakespeare used it that way. Take this racy passage from Othello (Act III, Scene IV), when the title character holds on to his wife Desdemona's hand:

This argues fruitfulness and liberal heart:
Hot, hot, and moist: this hand of yours requires
A sequester from liberty, fasting and prayer,
Much castigation, exercise devout.

I don't think Gramm and his colleagues had either Roman law or Shakespeare in mind when they started throwing around the word sequester — it was just an easy shorthand for sequestration (process). And ever since, sequester has been invoked when a similar scheme of forced budget cuts is proposed, as was the case when the 2011 supercommittee failed to come to an agreement. President Obama used it in an official statement at the time: "We've got $1 trillion locked in, and either Congress comes up with $1.2 trillion, which so far they've failed to do, or the sequester kicks in and these automatic spending cuts will occur that bring in an additional $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction."

Lately, Republicans in Congress have been attempting to pin the threat of the sequester and its calamitous spending cuts directly on Obama. House Speaker John Boehner has gone so far as to coin the portmanteau Obamaquester on Twitter to put the blame for such cuts squarely on the Oval Office. I'm not so sure that will accomplish much: consider the blend Obamacare, which started off as an anti-Obama epithet but was successfully neutralized by the president and his surrogates in last year's campaign. A bigger problem is that most people still don't know what sequester means; as Time's Katy Steinmetz noted, a poll in The Hill indicated that 25 percent of voters said that they didn't know what sequester referred to, while almost 40 percent guessed the wrong answer.

CNN Money figures that "forced budget cuts" is a preferable designation, to sequester their readers from confusion. What do you think? Should we learn to live with this budgetary jargon and let sequester fester? Let us know in the comments!


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday February 21st 2013, 11:49 AM
Comment by: Joann Z. (Rockford, IL)
The premise of your essay is that forced spending cuts would have detrimental effects. It would be the seminal event to benefit our economy long term.
Thursday February 21st 2013, 11:56 AM
Comment by: Becky C.
Thank you for the legal definition. It actually seems to fit the current use. I think, that like other words with which we aren't all that familiar, the use and explanation actually gives us a chance to learn more. I do not agree with CNN Money, I think they should give the legal definition and explain how it fits in this case. Of course, that would presume that they expect their viewers to want to understand, rather than continue to be ignorant, and then talk about "Washington Elites" and their use of obscure language so "we common folk" can't understand what they are doing.
Friday February 22nd 2013, 10:20 PM
Comment by: Richard F. (San Diego, CA)
I think if CNN is going to use one reference for this situation, I prefer the more to-the-point "forced budget cuts", as I would like the more direct "forced property seizure". Basically, if it is my property or my budget that being dealt with, the resulting action is ultimately more important to me, than the sequester part. But I agree with Becky in that it is good to know the processes involved, and the origins of their usage. Thanks for the article!
Sunday March 3rd 2013, 5:23 AM
Comment by: SmEbbers (CA)
Very interesting, Ben! Shakespeare was always happy to put a new use to an old word.

I think we should let the words "sequester" and "sequestration" fester a while. It will eventually percolate into our lexicon. I hope.

CNN's "Forced budget cuts" -- nothing wrong with it, but we lose the analogy to a jury, also kept apart, put aside, isolated.

Plus, the root SEQUEST doesn't translate into an easy definition for us, as you said, but because the same root exists in several other words, we can make some semantic connections:

sequestrator, sequestrate, sequestral, sequestrant, sequestrable, unsequestered, unsequestrable

Thanks. Always a pleasure!

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