Verbal Energy

'Expatriotism': the last refuge of a scoundrel?

Two senators going after Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin for taxes seem to need a little help with their spelling.

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What do we make of two Democratic senators, Charles Schumer of New York and Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, and their plan to introduce the Ex-PATRIOT Act?

As you may have heard, they have denounced Brazilian-born Eduardo Saverin, one of the founders of Facebook, for giving up his US citizenship in connection with his move to Singapore. The senators seem to think they know why he has done this.

"This is a great American success story gone wrong," Senator Schumer said. "Mr. Saverin wants to de-friend the United States just to avoid paying taxes, and we're not going to let him get away with it."

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As the Los Angeles Times and others have reported, Schumer estimated Mr. Saverin's tax savings from the move to be between $67 million and $100 million. To prevent others from following Saverin's lead, the senators plan to introduce something called the "Expatriation Prevention by Abolishing the Tax-Related Incentives for Offshore Tenancy Act," aka the Ex-PATRIOT Act.

The proposed law would make it easier for the Internal Revenue Service to go after wealthy people who renounce their US citizenship for tax purposes. It would also bar them from re-entering the country.

Saverin fired back, saying that he had other reasons for the move and that he'll be paying plenty to Uncle Sam. I'll let him make his own defense, and I appreciate the senators' being irked about all this. (And isn't irk a great word? It's short, and it sounds like what it means, especially out of the mouths of those who pronounce all their "r's.")

But I'm concerned that they and/or someone on their staff(s) doesn't understand that someone who leaves his or her homeland is an expatriate.

"Ex-patriot" is, well, not quite a regular word. The website Wordnik, when I asked, wanted to know if I meant "expatriate." Then there's "ex-Patriot" in the sense of "former member of the New England Patriots football team," and evidently, a video game called Ex-Patriot.

"Ex-patriot," were it a real word, might refer to someone who was formerly "patriotic" – inspired by a love of country – but has ceased to be so. In that sense, however, it wouldn't have to mean the person had left the country.

Expatriate, as a verb, appeared in English in 1768, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. It came from French and meant "to banish" – to send someone out of ("ex") his native land, or more literally "fatherland" – "patria," in Latin, or "patrie," in French, familiar to those who remember the first lines of "La Marseillaise" from high school.

Expatriate as a noun appeared half a century later. By the early 20th century, its meaning had shifted: It had come to mean one who lives abroad by choice. This happened just in time for the term to apply to Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and all those others celebrated in, for example, Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" and other books and movies too numerous to mention.

"Expat" goes back to the early 1960s. Nowadays "expatriates" tend to be the employees of multinational corporations, or at least organizations with a multinational presence. These are the people who, when they move, have someone else to pack their household stuff. I was once an expat myself, when I was abroad for several years for the Monitor. Then I was repatriated (sounds like something they do to prisoners of war, but that's the term), and so now I suppose I'm an ex-expat.

But still very patriotic. And the Fourth of July will be here before we know it.

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