Rescuing the Bailout

Which word best describes the government's response to the financial crisis?

Politics, especially in the few weeks before an election, is full of semantics, but this year seems particularly fraught. Take as just one example the Talmudic discussion over the government’s gigantic financial package to stanch economic bleeding. Is it a “bailout” or a “rescue”? And does it really matter what it’s called?

Let’s look at the different dictionary definitions, and then we can talk about each word’s connotations.

Dictionaries define “rescue” almost identically: the act of freeing or saving something from danger, imprisonment, evil, or other harm. While some dictionaries do not even list “bailout,” those that do define it as giving financial assistance to prevent a business or economy from failing. (A few dictionaries also say a “bailout” is the act of jumping out of a plane.) “Bailout,” by the way, is a “back formation,” meaning a word that was coined from other perfectly useful words—in this case, the verb phrase “to bail out.”

Now, about those connotations. The word “rescue” implies helplessness—somebody flailing about in the ocean, perhaps, desperate for someone to throw a life preserver. Someone who needs a “rescue” usually stumbles into danger, or is innocently thrown into it.

Say “bailout,” however, and more likely the image is less innocent, implying a measure of responsibility—someone who dug a hole that turned out to be too deep, perhaps. And because almost everybody associates “bailout” with money, as do the dictionaries, there can be a lot less sympathy for someone who needs a “bailout” than for someone who needs a “rescue.”

While most news organizations have been using “rescue” and “bailout” interchangeably, many politicians have subtly but steadily begun calling the package a “rescue.” Unless they’re against it, in which case they’re more likely to choose “bailout.” Whether the choice of label is subliminal or deliberate, or whether one person’s “rescue” is another’s “bailout,” it’s still everyone’s money.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.