The Meaning of Words

I ran into a friend this morning over coffee and she described how her husband had been battling the stomach flu for the last couple days and, as such, has been isolated from the rest of the family.

“He’s  been sequestered,” she said with access to numerous ESPN channels and multiple Avett Brothers albums. The word choice and frankly, the entertainment choices both made me smile.

We’ve heard the word “sequester” a lot lately in relation to the conversation about the impending budget choices for President Obama and Congress that take effect at the end of the year. The Washington Post in a wonderful FAQ on the topic translated it for the masses by calling it “the big, dumb spending cuts that no one wants.”

The common definition of the word comes from the legal system and was what my friend correctly referenced this morning. For example, you’ve heard of a jury being sequestered during a trial or, in other words, being removed from possible exposure to outside influences. The court can also authorize a sequestration of property, or in other words, the seizing of materials for their own safekeeping.

In the scientific world, the on-line Oxford Dictionary states that sequestration means to ” form a chelate or other stable compound with (an ion, atom, or molecule) so that it is no longer available for reactions.” Since I’m not a scientist nor do I play one on television, I’ll leave that to folks smarter than me to understand and go back to the legal definition.

Overall, the intent of the word is remove a person or an item from potential harm. It comes from the Latin term sequestrare which loosely translated means “to surrender” or to “commit for safe keeping.”

The political meaning of the word dates back to budget talks of the 1980′s. Dr. Paul Johnson, a political scientist at Auburn University, describes sequestration’s current incarnation as such:

“(T)he Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act of 1985 — (was) an effort to reform Congressional voting procedures so as to make the size of the Federal government’s budget deficit a matter of conscious choice rather than simply the arithmetical outcome of a decentralized appropriations process in which no one ever looked at the cumulative results until it was too late to change them. If the dozen or so appropriation bills passed separately by Congress provide for total government spending in excess of the limits Congress earlier laid down for itself in the annual Budget Resolution, and if Congress cannot agree on ways to cut back the total (or does not pass a new, higher Budget Resolution), then an “automatic” form of spending cutback takes place. This automatic spending cut is what is called “sequestration.”

Under sequestration, an amount of money equal to the difference between the cap set in the Budget Resolution and the amount actually appropriated is “sequestered” by the Treasury and not handed over to the agencies to which it was originally appropriated by Congress.”

Basically, the Treasury’s going to keep the taxpayers’ money that it was planning on spending on defense and many non-defense programs. That is, unless Congress and the President act to prevent that from happening.

One of my favorite plays is “Inherit the Wind,” and it was turned into a movie 50 or so years ago, starring Spencer Tracy, Fredric March (from Racine, Wisconsin and UW-Madison by the way), Gene Kelly and others. It’s loosely based on the topic of evolution and the Scopes Monkey Trial where a teacher was put on trial for teaching about Charles Darwin.

There’s a scene where the defense lawyer, Henry Drummond (played by Tracy), is criticized for using foul language in his regular conversations.  His response is classic and ought to be known by all those with a predilection for salty words.

“I don’t swear just for the hell of it,” he said. “Language is a poor enough means of communication. I think we should use all the words we’ve got. Besides, there are damn few words that anybody understands.”

I’m guessing sequestration isn’t one of those words everybody understands. Maybe if they battled the stomach flu, they’d get it or at least have time to read this blog to make sense of it all.

One of the best scenes from “Inherit the Wind” is posted below for your viewing pleasure.



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