What we talk about when we talk about money

A look at the sometimes checkered vocabulary of public finance.

It must just be hard to talk about money – within the body politic as within the family. That's the only reason I can come up with for some of our public-finance vocabulary.

Take sequestration, for instance. As you may be aware, if there's not a real budget deal in Congress – consenting adults surveying their options and deciding what they can give up and what they need to insist on – by March 1, automatic spending cuts will kick in. These are known as sequestration of funds. The word is rooted in the idea of "following" – as in sequel. The idea is that sequestered funds are in the safekeeping of a trusted follower of the top guy or gal, if I'm reading the Online Etymology Dictionary right.

Jurors can be sequestered – kept in a hotel overnight if their deliberations extend more than one day – generally at the trial judge's discretion, to prevent the jury from being tainted by outside information on the case.

Then there's carbon sequestration – the idea that trees prevent global warming by absorbing CO2 and hanging onto it. The trees are the trusted helpers, in this case.

Before we had sequestration of funds, we had rescission of funds, from rescind (from a Latin verb meaning "to tear off, cut off, or abolish"), usually used as in rescinding permission or a job offer.

And then there's impoundment, another term for when the government decides not to spend money as planned. It's part of the full title of the law known for short as the Budget Act of 1974, and sounds just as spiffy and high-flown as "sequestration." But if you think you see a dog in there, you're right. Pound, as a place to keep animals, originally cattle but latterly dogs, comes from a late Old English word meaning "an enclosure for animals."

It hasn't always been this way. Concretely, a budget was originally a small bag or wallet in which to carry money – coins, mostly, in the early years of the term, in the 15th century. Budget as a financial plan goes back to 1733; the idea was that a financial minister or whoever would keep his plan in his wallet. Ah, those simpler times!

A typical news photo of the US federal budget today features stacks and stacks of letter-size blue volumes about the thickness of the metropolitan Yellow Page directories of yore. The image etched on collective memory in Britain is somewhat more picturesque – the chancellor of the exchequer, nowadays George Osborne, is shown emerging from 11 Downing Street, next door to the prime minister, typically looking triumphant, or at least hopeful, as he holds aloft a battered "red box" that holds the government's spending plans.

The original budget box was introduced by William Ewart Gladstone in 1860. But the chancellor's post goes back to Henry I, who reigned from 1100 to 1135. The early chancellors actually used a sort of checkerboard with markers to calculate the movement of money around. Such "counters" (the source of our term for horizontal surfaces of a certain height found in shops and domestic kitchens) remained in use "right up to the 17th century," according to numismatist Kenneth Bressett. The problem was that Roman numerals remained in use long after the introduction of Arabic numerals, with their helpful zero.

"The title Chancellor of the Exchequer referred to a government official who was skilled at using the checkerboard counter to verify accounts," writes Mr. Bressett.

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