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'Sequestration': A way-too-big word for a simple thing

February 19, 2013: 12:19 PM ET
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The word "sequestration" dates back to ancient Rome. We should have left it there.

We've had enough of the Beltway's wacky terms. If you haven't noticed -- and how could you not? -- our lawmakers in D.C. have had a rather annoying obsession lately with using fancy-pants words to dramatize and complicate otherwise simple concepts.

Thankfully, the fiscal cliff headlines have come to an end. The next culprit, though, is "sequestration," and we're putting our foot down.

We're going to steer clear of the term in our articles and headlines. Why do we need such an esoteric word when we could just say  "forced budget cuts" instead?

Here's what you need to know: As my colleague Jeanne Sahadi writes, in the end, sequestration is just jargon for automatic, across-the-board cuts in funding. If Congress doesn't act, the budgets of most federal government programs and agencies will shrink, starting March 1.

Over the next 7 months, the automatic cuts will slash how much federal agencies are allowed to spend by $85 billion. The broader effort includes trimming $1.2 trillion from federal deficits over 10 years.

So where did the word "sequestration" come from? Blame it first on the ancient Romans -- and then Congress, for bringing it back into fashion.

The original term comes from the Latin word sequestrare, meaning to surrender or give up something for safe keeping. Under Roman law, sequestration happened when "two persons who fought over a piece of property gave control over it to a third, the sequester, until the dispute could be settled," according to Britannica.

In modern times, we continue to use the term to refer to isolation-- a "sequestered jury," for example. Even Shakespeare tossed it around. Linguist Ben Zimmer, a language columnist for The Boston Globe, points out a racy scene in which Othello tells his wife Desdemona that "this hand of yours requires/A sequester from liberty, fasting and prayer."

The term didn't take on its current wonky meaning for the federal budget until 1985. That year, Congress passed the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act, which aimed to balance the federal budget by 1991. If  the act's deficit targets were not met, it would trigger a series of across-the-board spending cuts referred to as "sequestration."

The debt super committee resurrected the term in August 2011, when it passed the Budget Control Act.

Our vote: Let's leave the word sequestration behind in the 1980s. Or, better yet, second-century BC.

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About This Author
Annalyn Censky
Annalyn Kurtz
Writer, CNNMoney

Annalyn Kurtz is a senior writer at CNNMoney, where she covers America's jobs crisis, Federal Reserve policy and other economic news. Before joining the site in 2010, she served as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in Prague and interned at Fortune Small Business magazine. @annalynkurtz

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