Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Semantics: "Bailout" vs. "Rescue"

(screen grab from CNN)

In last night's presidential debate, Senator McCain made an interesting semantic distinction between two words used to refer to the Treasury department's infamous financial plan:

Clark: Well, Senators, through this economic crisis, most of the people that I know have had a difficult time. And through this bailout package, I was wondering what it is that's going to actually help those people out.

McCain: Well, thank you, Oliver, and that's an excellent question, because as you just described it, bailout, when I believe that it's rescue, because -- because of the greed and excess in Washington and Wall Street, Main Street was paying a very heavy price, and we know that [emphasis added].

What is the difference between a bailout and a rescue? There is a nice cognitive semantic point to be made: I think bailout foregrounds the undergoer participants who are being helped and their failure to help themselves, whereas rescue foregrounds the actor participants who are doing the rescuing and their benevolence. My own take is that a bailout presupposes the participants being helped caused their own misfortune whereas a rescue presupposes they did not.

The indispensable political polling blogger Nate Silver posted about this very topic here. nate's big takeaway:

"...the proposal has been referred to colloquially as the "bailout" or very commonly the "Wall Street bailout" (the latter term brings up more than 7,000 hits in Google News). Where is Frank Luntz when you need him? If the proposal had instead been framed as, say, an "economic recovery" plan, it would probably be far less politically toxic."

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