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Who's really in control of the healthcare debate?

The Monitor's language columnist considers how some innocuous words have come to pack more punch over time.

By Ruth Walker / August 19, 2009



As the healthcare battle rages on, words are in the arsenals of all sides. On the NPR program "On the Media," Frank Luntz, Republican consultant and wordsmith, parsed the nuances of a "government takeover" of healthcare vs. "government-controlled" healthcare.

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For Republican purposes, "government takeover" is a "much more powerful" term, Luntz explained to guest host Mike Pesca. It's "a much more frightening word." That's because people are used to Medicare and other "government-controlled" programs. So control has lost some of its punch, the inference was. And takeover is more forceful.

Luntz is interestingly open about his strategic word choices. When Mr. Pesca played clips of people doing what Luntz suggests, on the floor of Congress or in interviews, they sound pretty natural. But then Luntz's explanations led to a forehead-slapping moment: "Of course, that's why they're saying it that way."

But I've been noodling on just how powerful control has become. Yes, I see how takeover sounds pretty aggressive. After all, reports of "hostile takeovers" are a staple in the business pages. And takeover suggests a concrete, decisive one-time action. Control suggests something more ongoing. That may provide a useful clue.

Actually, control started out referring to a sort of cross-check. A control is etymologically a "counter roll," one list used to verify the items on another – your inventory and the moving company's, for instance. This sense of control lives on in the case of a "controlled experiment." The "control group" doesn't direct the experiment, but provides a baseline for comparison.

The original controller was thus a sort of auditor, someone who checks up after the fact to ensure that things are being done right, rather than the one who pulls the strings in the first place.

Then around the year 1500, a variant popped up with some extra letters, as English words adapted from Norman French are wont to have. Here's what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say about comptroller: variant of controller, with bad spelling due to infl. of Fr. compte "an account."

As usage has evolved, a controller tends to be one who audits accounts within a business. The counterpart at an institution or within government is often known as the comptroller. The pronunciation is generally the same for both. But some people want to pronounce that "mp" combination.

And they want credit for pronouncing it. So they end up stressing that first syllable to make sure everyone hears: COMP-troller.

The word we might have made more use of instead of control is steer. It's a nice sturdy Anglo-Saxon monosyllable, put to work in the concrete contexts of the automobile (steering wheel) and the ship (steering into the channel). It has some use in metaphor – to "steer clear" of something is a punchy, bracingly nautical idiom (can't you smell the salt air?). But in other contexts, not so much. There are "steering committees" to organize political conventions and senior proms. Control has largely taken over from steer.

At the end of the interview on how to steer the healthcare debate, Luntz acknowledged that the Democrats have dropped the phrase "socialized medicine." I was a little disappointed that he failed to point out that they've also stopped beating their wives.

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