RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And the government's takeover of Fannie and Freddie is being called the latest bailout. Commentator Ammon Shea is the author of "Reading the OED." We asked him to take a closer look at this word. It's not always clear what people mean when they use it.
AMMON SHEA: First of all, everyone on every side of the debate should agree that this is, in fact, a bailout, but they all get to consult the dictionaries of their choice to establish what a bailout is.
Those who oppose the Treasury's plan can point out that "The Cambridge Dictionary of American English" defines bailout as the process of saving a company, plan or other thing from failing by providing lots of money.
This would bolster their claim that the Treasury is subsidizing poor business practices and potentially throwing away billions of dollars that could help needy Americans.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson could counter with the definition from "The New Oxford American Dictionary." A bailout can also be an instance of giving assistance to a failing economy. That would bolster the claim that the government is acting to save the larger economy and not simply trying to help a privileged few.
Their opposition could then come back with "The American Heritage Dictionary's" definition, which says a bailout is nothing from than a rescue from financial difficulties. Ah-ha! The Treasury will then cry. We were referring to the bailout that is defined in "The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Second Edition," of, pertaining to or consisting of the means for relieving an emergency situation.
Their opponents will then throw down their trump card, "The Miriam-Webster and Garfield Dictionary," whose cover reads: the first dictionary with attitude and with comics. It says a bailout is simply a rescue from financial distress.
Since none of the Treasury Department's dictionaries come equipped with comics, it's doubtful that they will have a suitable rejoinder to this. So let's face it: Giving a name to something won't change what that thing is, and it won't change whether you are for it or against it.
Both the Treasury and its nay-sayers should give up on quibbling about what is and isn't a bailout and go back to quibbling about more substantial matters, like how many thesauri you can buy with billions and billions of dollars.
MONTAGNE: Commentator Ammon Shea spent a year checking out definitions for his book, "Reading the OED."
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