Political Speak: Is Investing The New Spending?

President Obama is not expected to use the word spending in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. Instead, the word of the moment is investment. Ben Zimmer, who writes the "On Language" column in The New York Times Magazine, parses the two terms.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When President Obama talks about the federal budget tonight, he's likely to talk about federal investments, instead of federal spending. Republicans don't like that. Here's Senator Mitch McConnell on "Fox News Sunday."

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Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): With all due respect to her Democratic friends, any time they want to spend they call it investment. So I think you will hear the president talk about investing a lot Tuesday night.

Mr. BEN ZIMMER (On-Language Columnist, New York Times Magazine): They can prime the public with the idea that whenever you hear that word investment, you should really be thinking spending.

INSKEEP: That's Ben Zimmer, who writes the On Language column for the New York Times magazine.

Mr. ZIMMER: Any sort of spending initiative can be looked at as investment, if you look at it through the right light. And so the opposing party - in this case, the Republicans - would like to strip that term away from spending initiatives, and leave it just with that bare, ugly word spending, which has gotten such a bad rap, so that any type of government spending needs to have a certain kind of framing to it in order to be acceptable.

INSKEEP: Many political debates come down to what you call something. A famous example of recent years came when Republicans rebranded the federal estate tax as the death tax. Now, in a time of big deficits, it may matter if you see your federal dollars at work as spending or an investment.

Mr. ZIMMER: If we're buying some new wardrobe, we might think, well, this is just an investment for my future - perhaps for getting a better job, perhaps for future prospects for dating. Nobody wants to be accused of simply spending without any reasonable basis for it. What counts as a reasonable basis for spending, of course, will depend on your point of view.

INSKEEP: That's Ben Zimmer, who writes the On Language column for the New York Times magazine. If you invest some time tonight, you have a chance to hear President Obama's State of the Union speech and the Republican response from Congressman Paul Ryan on many NPR stations.

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