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Gramm-ology: “Sequester”

Q: My friend and I are having difficulty figuring out how the government selected the word “sequester” for the current fiscal crisis. Any ideas on this?

A: Let’s begin with a little history.

When the verb “sequester” showed up in English in the late 14th century, it meant to set aside or separate, and it still has that meaning.

The word, which first appeared in the Wycliffe Bible, was adapted from the Late Latin term sequestrare (to place in safekeeping), according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

The noun “sequester” also showed up in the late 14th century and the noun “sequestration” followed in the mid-15th century.

Over the years, the verb (as well as the nouns) has taken on many different senses related to setting aside or separating: to excommunicate or isolate someone, to confiscate something, to seize the possessions of a debtor, to set apart property in dispute, to isolate a jury, and so on.

In the sense you’re asking about, the term refers to budget sequestration, a process for controlling the size of the federal budget by setting spending limits and enforcing them with automatic cuts.

The term “budget sequestration” was first used in the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Deficit Reduction Act of 1985. Senators Phil Gramm, Warren Rudman, and Ernest Hollings were the main sponsors.

The measure provided for “sequesters” (automatic spending cuts) if the federal deficit exceeded targets.

The term was later used in the Budget Control Act of 2011 and in the Sequestration Transparency Act of 2012.

How, you ask, did the word “sequester” come to be used in this sense?

Tracey Samuelson, a reporter on public radio, quotes former Senator Gramm, one of the sponsors of the 1985 legislation, as saying, “To me, sequester conjured up taking something off the table, withholding something.”

Gramm, a Texas Republican, said Congress had also considered the word “impoundment” before settling on “sequester,” according to Samuelson’s American Public Media report.

“It’s always helpful if when you invent a term, if it already conjures up what you’re trying to say,” he said, adding, “If a sequester is what you got to do to get people’s attention, I would do it.”

So, did Gramm coin the usage? Not exactly, according to Samuelson’s report. Gramm said the former House majority leader Jim Wright, a Texas Democrat, had suggested this use of the term “sequester” to him.  

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