The Etymology of Social Security

THE ETYMOLOGY OF SOCIAL SECURITY….Here’s a question for the press corps: In Social Security articles, many of you have now adopted the shiny new phrase “personal accounts” to replace the moldy old phrase “private accounts.” You’ve done this despite the fact that conservatives have been quite open about why they’re promoting this change: “private accounts” didn’t poll well, so they switched to talking about personal accounts.

But recently they’ve started promoting a new switcheroo, and we language mavens get to watch it happen in real time. Here it is: in the past, “carve-out” referred to a private account that was funded by taking money out of current Social Security taxes. “Add-on” referred to an account that was over and above current Social Security and that left existing taxes and benefits alone.

As it happens, Democrats have a long history of saying that although they dislike George Bush’s Social Security privatization plans, they’d welcome the idea of add-on accounts, which are sort of like IRAs or 401(k)s. To take advantage of this, the White House has now started referring to their plan as an add-on. “See, personal accounts is an add-on to that which the government is going to pay you,” said President Bush recently. Dan Froomkin traces the first few days of this new language offensive here.

Now, it’s pretty obvious what’s going on here. Democrats have spent a fair amount of rhetorical capital saying nice things about “add-on accounts,” and the White House figures they can take advantage of that by pretending that that’s exactly what their plan is. This is probably pretty effective with ordinary audiences who are unaware of the nuances of the Social Security debate.

Reporters know better, of course, because they’ve been following this debate for months and know that this new phraseology popped up out of nowhere just in the past few days. And so my question is this: who will be the first reporter to either (a) adopt the White House’s usage or (b) accept the argument that neither of the previously neutral phrases “add-on” and “carve-out” can be used at all because that would be taking sides?

A free lollipop to the first reader who catches anyone in the mainstream press doing either of these things.