'We're Broke': Empty Bank Accounts, Empty Meaning? Linguist Geoff Nunberg says everyone's using the phrase "we're broke" these days to justify cuts in government programs and services. But what does "we're broke" actually mean? The answer, says Nunberg, is trickier than you might think.
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'We're Broke': Empty Bank Accounts, Empty Meaning?

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'We're Broke': Empty Bank Accounts, Empty Meaning?

'We're Broke': Empty Bank Accounts, Empty Meaning?

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"We're broke." That's an expression we've been hearing a lot lately, including from legislators, mayors and governors.

Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has been thinking about what that homey expression conveys.

GEOFF NUNBERG: The word "economics" comes from oikos, the Greek word for home, and originally referred to the art of household management. It hasn't meant that for some centuries, of course. But people are still drawn to describing the affairs of government in homey terms. Take "we're broke," which Republicans have made their mantra to justify cuts in government programs and services, none so insistently as John Boehner, who has been pleading the B word for years, long before the B word was cool.

That claim that "we're broke" drives some people into a lather. A recent New York Times editorial called it obfuscating nonsense. No states are going to go bankrupt, it said, and a country with a big deficit is no more broke than a family with a college loan. E.J. Dionne called it a phony metaphor. And a recent Bloomberg article observed that you can't call a country broke when investors all over the world are lining up to lend it money for less than a one percent return.

In response, though, a spokesman for Boehner said that a family is broke if they keep spending more than they're making. And who's to say that sort of definition is wrong? It isn't as if broke is a precise term, like insolvent.

And Republicans aren't the only ones who have found the word a handy label for government deficits. The New York Times' editorial qualms haven't deterred the paper from running headlines like "California, Almost Broke." And even Jon Stewart said not long ago that the country is broke, though he laid the blame on the extension of the Bush tax cuts.

On the other hand, if the definition of broke is so loose, why go there in the first place? The Times called the word a scare tactic. And broke can raise specters of bailiffs and bread lines, and seems to come up a lot in the scenarios of imminent financial catastrophe in ads for vendors of gold coins and bullion.

But broke can convey things other than fear. It comes from an old use of break to mean impoverish, and suggests an abiding association between destitution and destruction, the same connection that gives us wiped out and busted, not to mention the -rupt of bankrupt, which came from the Italian for broken bank. The Victorians said all to smash, or more politely, ruined, which could suggest financial, moral or social degradation, or sometimes all three together - as when a character in Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" says: A countess living at an inn is a ruined woman.

In fact, broke and its synonyms can convey those same overtones of shame and disgrace, which is why we say somebody who's gone broke is financially embarrassed. You can be born poor, but nobody's born broke. It's a calamity that happens to you through ill fortune or improvidence. But one way or the other, broke implies helplessness. As Ray Charles put it in "I'm Busted": There ain't a thing I can do. It brings to mind the little "Monopoly" man on the bankruptcy Chance card, with his pockets turned out and his palms and shoulders raised in a plaintive shrug. That's what can make "we're broke" a self-absolving way of closing down a discussion, whether it comes from a parent or a politician. What part of "we're broke" do you not understand?

Well, okay, since I asked, it's the first part, actually. I get where broke is going, but I have some trouble with that we. In my experience, people work more sleight of hand with that little pronoun than with any other word in the American political lexicon. Who exactly is the we on whom all that helplessness and humiliation have been visited? Well, who could it be but the American people, or the people of New Jersey, Wisconsin or wherever?

But if that's right, the statement's puzzling. It isn't as if the whole country is beggared or the American economy has collapsed. There's still a lot of money around in the aggregate, even if it's not spread around evenly and there are places where the floorboards show through.

That's where the pronoun gets tricky. "We" doesn't always mean you and I and the others. Thanks to the semantic operation called metonymy, the word can jump from one thing to something else that's connected with it. When I say we're parked out back, I don't mean me and my wife. I mean our car. And when the president of the pep club shakes the tin where the cookie money's kept and says we're almost broke, she doesn't mean the members are all out of money, just the club's coffers.

And that's pretty much what John Boehner and Jon Stewart mean when they say we're broke. Call it stealth metonymy. We're not broke, no more than we're parked out back. It's just the cookie fund. And that isn't the helpless, mortifying kind of broke that can descend on a family with nowhere to turn. We can either get some people to kick in a few more bucks, or we can spend the rest of the school year eating saltines. But whether it's the pep club or the federal government, that's a question of politics - not household management. And while you could describe the situation by saying we're broke, that doesn't really move the conversation along very much. The problem's with the pronoun. Things would just be clearer if we were left out of it.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkley.

You can find links to all the clips and articles he referred to on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

(Soundbite of song "I'm Busted")

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