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The words we need for the state we're in

On reflection, the Monitor's language columnist decides that bailout isn't a bad choice after all for 'Word of the Year.'

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My initial response, I have to admit, to bailout as Merriam-Webster's "word of the year" was along the lines of "duh."

Too obvious, for one thing. Too early, for another: The announcement was out before Thanksgiving. It's like those holiday catalogs that arrive Columbus Day weekend: "It's not too late to shop for Christmas!" I should jolly well hope it's not.

But bailout is certainly timely. And it's won a popular vote. Bailout, defined in Merriam-Webster Online as "a rescue from financial distress," won the distinction because it "received the highest intensity of lookups on Merriam-Webster Online over the shortest period of time." Now there's a window into language that Noah Webster could not have dreamed of.

For conciseness, bailout certainly beats such financial blather as "collateralized debt obligations." And bailout is humbling for the ones to whom it is applied, but ultimately forgiving, like a father going down to the police station to claim the son who's had a scrape with the law.

Bail, both in the sense of bailing out a boat that's taken on water and in the sense of springing someone from jail by posting bond, derive from a Latin verb, bajulare, meaning "to bear a burden."

The one who bails out a boat is making like a water bearer, filling a bucket and emptying it overboard. The one who bails someone out of jail takes on the burden of ensuring that the one sprung appears in court to stand trial and the risk of loss of bond money if not.

Burden is surely a concept that resonates in the current environment. But note that waffle – "current environment." What do we call this state we're in? It's officially – finally – a recession, according to the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research, which gets to determine such things.


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