On Playing with Words

Over the past several weeks, there has not been a shortage of discussions and commentaries around the debt ceiling. If nothing else, this topic demonstrates that politics involves playing the word game, which sometimes capitalizing on what the listeners do not know. For instance, let’s consider the following phrases/terms: size of government, deficit, and debt.

What is the meaning of size of government? To me, size refers to how big government is … the size of the organizational chart. On the other hand, some use size of government to refer to the amount the government spends. However, amount refers to the number of dollars involved. If the org chart remains the same, a budget decrease means the amount spent decreases while the government’s size remains the same. Of course, some also incorrectly use size of government when they actually mean the role of government.

Does the user mean debt or deficit? The two are not interchangeable terms. The recent debate involves plans for deficit reduction, but not necessary the debt. Yep, they actually agreed upon a budget decrease that reduces the rate of debt increase. That is, the debt still increases.

Deficit and surplus refer to the difference between income and spending – specifically, during a particular 12-month fiscal year. If income is greater, that’s a surplus. If spending is greater, that is a deficit. In other words, deficit and surplus only refer to a one-year period.

Debt is a long-term word involving an ongoing accumulation of yearly deficits. Interestingly, if the surplus does not cover the interest on the debt, a surplus does not reduce the debt. Even the GOP recognizes that it will take 10-years of concentrated deficit reduction to reach a point of the debt not increasing. Yep, at that point, a large debt remains.

The moral of this post is the following. As you either listen or read the commentaries, or even better, read comments and letters to the editor or comments on blogs, take note of these terms and you will notice correct and incorrect use … and misleading use.

3 thoughts on “On Playing with Words

  1. Deficit and debt are two of the key phrases in this whole government financial mess. While many have talked about the Clinton-era surpluses, all this meant was we did not grow the overall debt. Even if we cut the deficit, as you very accurately point out, we do still grow the debt, just at a slower rate. Even the news media can mix up these terms. I’ve heard it said we have a $14+ trillion deficit (no, it ain’t THAT bad) and that the country has an overall $1.4+ trillion debt (that would be REALLY nice).
    I think that’s a large part of the financial problems we’ve been having within the government – not everyone is using the same terms, or in the same context. “Smaller government” has to be better defined, or we end up turning circles trying to decide how to get there. Otherwise, we risk running afoul of such duplicitous terms as “no new taxes”.
    And let’s hope our worries remain only financial – that our cities do not go the route of those in England, especially Philadelphia as it teeters on the brink. Our cities have suffered too much, for youthful indiscretions and misguided protests to cause potentially fatal damage. God bless and care for our “mother country”.


    • John,
      “not everyone is using the same terms, or in the same context” … that is a powerful statement and the essence of my post. Candidates should define “smaller government”, then again, they will do so with sound bytes that don’t answer the question. Meanwhile, let us hope for cooler heads across the pond. Thanks for sharing.


  2. We know sociologically that language precedes thought. How you speak about something is how you ultimately think about it. Sow a word, reap a thought. Sow a thought, reap an action…. and so on.

    Both media and government have become very adept at tailoring words to change or derange the thought process of the american public. This, combined with the fact schools no longer teach or encourage critical thinking (since it is not on the test…) gives us the current voting patterns and predicaments.


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