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‘Sequester’: Washington’s catchword of the moment

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Forget the “fiscal cliff” and consider instead Washington’s new mot du jour, the “sequester.”

It’s not being used to refer to what happens to members of a jury when they are set apart, or segregated, while agonizing over a tough case. Nor is it a public health measure — as in the infected will be sequestered!

What was a legal reference to valuable property being locked away by a court of law, said John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University, is now being used to describe a procedure in which automatic spending cuts are triggered because Congress and the White House fail to agree on deficit reductions, causing money to be removed in budget cuts — or sequestered.

This is not a new coinage but a relic of President Ronald Reagan’s administration, when Sens. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.), Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.) and Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) came up with the “sequester” as a way to ensure that Congress slashed spending.

“It’s really just a euphemism that takes the emotion out of negative things that are happening, like ‘collateral damage,’ ” said Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University who is spending this year at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

“Its new use has gone viral, like the word ‘occupy,’ ” McWhorter said.

How?

“Well when you hear ‘occupy,’ you think of a bunch of people under 30 amassed somewhere. ‘Occupy’ has many meanings, but this secondary one has become its everyday meaning now.”

And “sequester”?

“Instead of hiding or grabbing something into secrecy,” McWhorter said, “we now think of it as a dull, but urgent governmental crisis.”

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