The Grammarphobia Blog

Raise taxes? Read our lips

Q: Isn’t it ambiguous to speak of “raising taxes”? The verb “raise” has two meanings: (1) increase (“The bank raised interest rates”) or (2) collect (“We raised money for the Red Cross”). So “raising taxes” can mean either increasing or collecting them, right?

A: The verb “raise” has a lot more than two meanings, of course.

Since entering English around 1200, it has meant, among other things, to revive someone from the dead, stir up or instigate, lift up, build or erect, and cause dough to rise.

The word “raise” has roots in early Scandinavian, in which the runic word ræisa meant to erect a stone monument.

In Old Icelandic, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, reisa meant to erect, build, start, rebel, cause to rise, and many other things.

But getting back to your question, the English verb “raise” came to mean to collect taxes, rent, money, and so on in the 14th century.

But none of the OED’s citations for “raise” used in the sense of collecting taxes actually use the word “taxes.”

The earliest example of this usage in the dictionary is from a 1389 ordinance of an English guild: “It schal ben reysed and gadered be ye alderman and his felas.”

And here’s a 1688 example from a collection of pamphlets and official papers issued by the colonial government in Massachusetts: “Impowered to make Laws and raise moneys on the Kings Subjects.”

When the verb “raise” and the noun “taxes” are used together, it generally means to increase taxes, not collect them.

This sense of “raise” (to increase taxes, rents, prices, etc.) showed up in the 16th century.

The earliest OED citation is from the Coverdale Bible (1535), the first complete printed translation of the Bible in English: “Acordinge to the multitude of the yeares shalt thou rayse the pryce.”

The dictionary’s entry for this sense of the word doesn’t include any citations for raising taxes, but the OED does include several examples of the usage in other quotations, including this memorable 1988 example from President George H. W. Bush:

“Congress will push me to raise taxes and I’ll say no, and they’ll push, and I’ll say no, and they’ll push again, and I’ll say to them, ‘Read my lips: no new taxes.’ ”

No, we don’t think there’s any ambiguity about “raising taxes.” It means increasing them.

And we’re sure the present occupant of the White House as well as the present Congress would agree with us.

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