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Blame sequester on Shakespeare

By Mark Hamrick ·
Thursday, February 14, 2013
Posted 2 pm ET

Republicans and Democrats in Washington have been blaming one another on looming automatic budget cuts, dubbed the "sequester."

The most immediate concern involves $85 billion in cuts due March 1.

During his State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama noted, "Democrats, Republicans, business leaders and economists have already said that these cuts, known here in Washington as the sequester, are a really bad idea." In turn, Republicans say the president shares blame for including the cuts in the 2011 debt-ceiling hike deal.

But beyond the Washington Beltway, most Americans apparently aren't focused on the matter.

The Hill newspaper published a poll recently saying only 36 percent of voters even know what the sequester is. About one-fifth were said to have "some sense the sequester was a fiscal issue."

As it turns out, elected leaders can trace the sequester back to the Bard. Since William Shakespeare isn't alive to argue otherwise, he could be a convenient target for blame.

An expert on words who lives in the nation's capital is prolific author Paul Dickson. He recently released "Words from the White House: Words and Phrases Coined or Popularized by America's Presidents."

Pressed on the question, Dickson turned to his Oxford English Dictionary. He says "sequester" first showed up as a now-obsolete reference in English civil law in 1380 where a contested object is set aside until the case has been decided.

After that, Shakespeare's Othello puts the word to use in, "This hand of yours requires a sequester from liberty." That was some four centuries ago.

If Americans feel disconnected from the sequester, Dickson says it is probably intended that way.

"You can say that Washington has its own jargon," says Dickson. The difference, he says, "is that jargon is used to isolate a group." In this case, Dickson suggests Washington officials might rather have the people they represent be confused or unaware.

"Some of the words are meant to obfuscate, and I think this is one of them," says Dickson.

He charges that in failing to properly communicate to Americans, leaders are performing a disservice. Dickson concludes, "It is a major event (the planned cuts) and I don't think we're prepared for it because I don't think people understand the importance of it."

Who better than Shakespeare to foretell this ongoing budget drama? Americans might hope that unlike Othello, it won't be a tragedy.

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