The Power of Words: Rescuing a Bailout

Words matter. They carry tone and nuance. Fat, full-figured, obese, overweight, big, pleasantly plump. Each of these words presents a different mental image. It’s no secret that politicians choose words to put the best face (lipstick on a pig, anyone?) on a controversy or disaster. The legislation that gives the government the right to listen in on phone calls is “The Patriot Act.”

But what’s been interesting about word choice during the current economic bump, slump, readjustment, correction, recession, depression, crash is how frank politicians have been about changing words to shape public opinion. At first the economic fix was termed a bailout. For me, bailout conjures up lowering a rusty bucket into a deep murky well.  Who knows what’s down there–snakes, rats or other unforeseen vermin that will present new problems and obstacles.  And a bailout–bucket-by-murky-bucket–is slow and onerous.

While this might not be quite the mental image bailout brings to mind for you, it carried enough negative freight that the economic Pooh-Bahs couldn’t sell it.  Congress roundly defeated the $700 million “bail-out.”

Back to the drawing board.  In redrafting legislation, the Congress added (your choice) sweeteners, earmarks, incentives, pork. And in the process, the bailout became a rescue. Senator Obama picked up on the negative connotation of bailout. “When you call it a bailout, nobody’s in favor of a bailout,” he said. And by the time the bailout was approved by the Senate, it had gone from “Wall Street Bailout Plan” to a “Taxpayers Rescue Package.”

Much better.  Rescue conjures up a more heroic image: firefighter fighting flames  to rescue an elderly couple from a burning house, a Good Samaritan diving into frigid water to rescue a drowning child, or Congress jumping into a financial quagmire to rescue “toxic assets.”

Interestingly, while the plan morphed from bailout to rescue, one word that didn’t change was toxic: toxic assets, toxic debt. Toxic conjures up Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Love Canal–disasters with frightening consequences. Toxins (with the exception of Botox–botulism toxins) is deadly and insidious–something that we cannot tolerate or ignore.

Certainly, we’re not out of the financial woods or the word wars yet. Will rescue become recovery? Call it what you will, I sure hope it works!

–Marilynne Rudick (guest blogger)

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