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Who's really in control of the healthcare debate?

The Monitor's language columnist considers how some innocuous words have come to pack more punch over time.

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As the healthcare battle rages on, words are in the arsenals of all sides. On the NPR program "On the Media," Frank Luntz, Republican consultant and wordsmith, parsed the nuances of a "government takeover" of healthcare vs. "government-controlled" healthcare.

For Republican purposes, "government takeover" is a "much more powerful" term, Luntz explained to guest host Mike Pesca. It's "a much more frightening word." That's because people are used to Medicare and other "government-controlled" programs. So control has lost some of its punch, the inference was. And takeover is more forceful.

Luntz is interestingly open about his strategic word choices. When Mr. Pesca played clips of people doing what Luntz suggests, on the floor of Congress or in interviews, they sound pretty natural. But then Luntz's explanations led to a forehead-slapping moment: "Of course, that's why they're saying it that way."

But I've been noodling on just how powerful control has become. Yes, I see how takeover sounds pretty aggressive. After all, reports of "hostile takeovers" are a staple in the business pages. And takeover suggests a concrete, decisive one-time action. Control suggests something more ongoing. That may provide a useful clue.

Actually, control started out referring to a sort of cross-check. A control is etymologically a "counter roll," one list used to verify the items on another – your inventory and the moving company's, for instance. This sense of control lives on in the case of a "controlled experiment." The "control group" doesn't direct the experiment, but provides a baseline for comparison.

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