As Metro Scene explained a while back, the phrases "inside the beltway" and "beyond the Beltway" were invented a few years back by Federal Diary columnist Mike Causey as handy shorthand. They were intended to describe issues -- particularly involving civil service -- that are of particular interest to the Washington area, where federal workers, especially in the higher grades, are concentrated.

The terminology caught on and spread, and within the past week, two columns that appear on this newspaper's op-ed page, those of George Will and of Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, have used it -- but as metaphor, not as shorthand.

Its metaphorical use, suggesting that the nation is divided between Washington bureaucrats and ideologues and the rest of the country, has now become a matter of debate.

Charles McDowell, Washington writer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, discussed it at length on Friday evening's edition of the nationally televised Public Broadcasting Service program, "Washington Week in Review." And yesterday, this newspaper's Free For All page of letters from readers contained an angry blast from one Peter P. Goodnow.

McDowell probably demystified the Beltway reference for many outside-the-Beltway TV viewers, explaining that it refers to a congested 67-mile highway that encircles the nation's capital. "What it really is," he added, is "the outer limits, where half the stuff we're talking about isn't understood."

By that definition, it's a matter chiefly of knowledge and preoccupation, not necessarily of attitude.

But, to paraphrase and interpret letter-writer Goodnow, columnist Novak (of the Evans and Novak team) is unfairly using it both in his writings and on his TV appearances on "The McLaughlin Group" to suggest that the people on opposite sides of the Beltway are monolithic in their views, not diverse.

The semantic dispute, I'd venture, will remain chiefly an inside-the-Beltway issue.