By the Way, It’s Really Called ‘the Sequestration’

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An Oxford English Dictionary is shown at the headquarters of the Associated Press in New York on Sunday, Aug. 29, 2010.  It's been in print for over a century, but in future the Oxford English Dictionary _ the authoritative guide to the English language _ may only be available online.  Oxford University Press, the publisher, said Sunday that burgeoning demand for the dictionary's online version has far outpaced demand for the printed versions. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones)
Dictionaries. Photo: Caleb Jones/Corbis

In recent weeks, you've been hearing the word "sequester" with increasing frequency. "Sequestration" isn't as common — “sequester” has been mentioned on Twitter over the past month nearly 250,000 times, compared to just 50,000 for "sequestration" — but it's actually the more accurate term, grammatically speaking.

Asked about the discrepancy, Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary, tells Daily Intelligencer that “sequestration” is in fact the formal name for the process of limiting Congress’s budgetary discretion. “The form ‘sequester’ is normally a verb, and most dictionaries only list it as a verb," he tells us. However, Sheidlower says the use of “sequester” as a noun, while rare, dates back centuries in the English language, appearing as far back as 1604 in Shakespeare’s Othello.

That would seem to settle the matter, but this case is slightly different. Sheidlower tells us today’s use of “sequester” is actually considered a shortened version of “sequestration,” rather than a continuation of the older noun form. “It is shorter, and feels snappier, and ‘sequestration’ is a relatively complex-sounding word, so it's no surprise that many people would prefer to use ‘sequester’ instead," he says. "I don't think this makes it 'wrong'; it's just a shortened form."

Of course, avoiding both words altogether might be the most sensible option, seeing as how no one understands any of this anyway. “A more pressing concern is that most people have absolutely no idea what either word means in this context," Sheidlower says, "so using something like ‘mandatory automatic budget cuts’ would be more helpful.” 

“Mandatory automatic budget cuts.” Just rolls right off the tongue.