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What we talk about when we talk about money

A look at the sometimes checkered vocabulary of public finance.

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It must just be hard to talk about money – within the body politic as within the family. That's the only reason I can come up with for some of our public-finance vocabulary.

Take sequestration, for instance. As you may be aware, if there's not a real budget deal in Congress – consenting adults surveying their options and deciding what they can give up and what they need to insist on – by March 1, automatic spending cuts will kick in. These are known as sequestration of funds. The word is rooted in the idea of "following" – as in sequel. The idea is that sequestered funds are in the safekeeping of a trusted follower of the top guy or gal, if I'm reading the Online Etymology Dictionary right.

Jurors can be sequestered – kept in a hotel overnight if their deliberations extend more than one day – generally at the trial judge's discretion, to prevent the jury from being tainted by outside information on the case.

Then there's carbon sequestration – the idea that trees prevent global warming by absorbing CO2 and hanging onto it. The trees are the trusted helpers, in this case.

Before we had sequestration of funds, we had rescission of funds, from rescind (from a Latin verb meaning "to tear off, cut off, or abolish"), usually used as in rescinding permission or a job offer.

And then there's impoundment, another term for when the government decides not to spend money as planned. It's part of the full title of the law known for short as the Budget Act of 1974, and sounds just as spiffy and high-flown as "sequestration." But if you think you see a dog in there, you're right. Pound, as a place to keep animals, originally cattle but latterly dogs, comes from a late Old English word meaning "an enclosure for animals."


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