Verbal Energy

Schemes on Wall Street and in public policy

It's too bad 'scheme' has such a bad reputation in American English, because we could certainly use a synonym for 'program.'

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It was, the news reader sternly intoned, the largest insider trading case ever involving a single stock: a scheme, the government alleges, that netted approximately $57 million in profits for the Level Global Investors hedge fund – which went out of business a few months after federal agents raided its office in November 2010.

The case, involving trades in shares of the computer company Dell, caught my attention, in part because of its size and in part because one of the defendants hails from just up the road from me, give or take a suburb, in Boston. It also provides an occasion to consider how scheme came to have such nefarious connotations, when it ought to be simply another word for "plan."

It's fairly well known that since the advent of the Web, copy-editing standards have suffered as the editing layers have thinned out, and it has become all too easy to post, or publish, now and edit later. Less often remarked upon, however, is how much vigilante copy editing goes on as readers react to one another's various bits of "user-generated content."

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Last October someone posted to AskMetaFilter ("querying the hive mind") a message that began thus:

"Need help to think about the details of a feeding scheme for homeless and people in need in my neighbourhood."

The "neighbourhood" in question turns out to be in Brazil, but the poster is evidently a native speaker of English – of the British rather than the American kind.

If, as they say, no good deed goes unpunished, it may also be true that no expression of compassion for one's fellow beings goes unedited. One of the first responses was, "Well, first off, sometimes the word 'scheme' has negative connotations. I'd go with, 'I want to create a food drive,' or something like that."

To which came a quick rejoinder from a third party: "Only in America, pal."

At this point, a fourth voice entered, providing information on food banks, and also quoting at some length from the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines scheme in part as "A plan of action devised in order to attain some end; a purpose together with a system of measures contrived for its accomplishment; a project, enterprise. Often with unfavourable notion, a self-seeking or an underhand project, a plot ... or a visionary or foolish project.... This is now the most prominent use, and in some degree colours the other senses so far as they survive."

And yet one doesn't have to wade too deep into news and public affairs reporting from outside the United States to know that scheme is often used where Americans would use program. "Youth employment scheme," for instance, is a common phrase. It certainly makes for an affirmative acronym: YES!

To give another example, the British government program that lets visitors from outside the European Union claim a refund of the value-added tax paid on cars purchased in Britain and shipped back home is known as the Personal Export Scheme.

But in American English we're stuck with program, which we have to use all the time, at least in the realm of public policy (not so much in the realm of lyric poetry). And program must be one of the most boring words in the English language. It would be helpful to have a synonym. But, in the grand scheme of things, it might not matter that much.

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