Why you shouldn’t mix up your schemes

Photo credit: Abhi Sharma

The so-called Panama Papers showed how some wealthy people around the world, among them prominent politicians, celebrities, and others, hid their wealth.

Many journalists writing about the kinds of tax-avoidance practices outlined in the Panama Papers used words to indicate that the practices may not have been entirely legal. Among the most common words used in that context was “scheme.”

The law firm that orchestrated many of these plans, Mossack Fonseca, had itself used the word “scheme” to describe what it was selling: According to a New York Times article, a memo from a lawyer at the firm said a new, wealthy client “needs asset protection schemes, which we are trying to sell him.” (Emphasis added.)

It would be easy to seize on that usage to argue the firm must have known what it was doing was sinister, or underhanded, or maybe not entirely above board, because it called it a “scheme.”

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Except that in Panama, like in much of the English-speaking world outside the United States, “scheme” usually carries no such connotation. It simply means “plan.”

Browse any British, Australian, Canadian publication, or even some in Panama, and you’ll read about “salary schemes,” “pension schemes,” “housing schemes,” even “university schemes.” None of those involve hints of wrongdoing (well, maybe “pensions schemes” do, if companies don’t fund them the way they should). It’s a neutral term, a synonym for “project” or “plan.”

“Scheme” is a “Janus word,” or a “contranym” or “contradictanym,” with two opposite meanings. We’ve discussed similar words, like “sanction,” which can mean to endorse something (a “sanctioned” baseball league) or to punish (trade “sanctions” against China), or “shenanigans,” which can be harmless pranks or something more sinister. Context will help you figure out which meaning is intended, sometimes.

But take this quotation from Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour Party in Britain, talking about Prime Minister David Cameron in the context of the Panama Papers:

“David Cameron, who described the use of complex tax avoidance schemes as ‘morally wrong,’ has been forced to admit that he held shares in a fund now linked to tax avoidance.”

Was he implying that Cameron had implied that the tax-avoidance fund was somehow sinister, or wrong? Or was he simply calling complex tax-avoidance practices a “project” or “plan”? Only Watson knows for sure.

The word “scheme” derives from Latin and Greek words meaning “form, figure,” and its first uses in English, in the 15th and 16th centuries, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, were in contexts meaning “diagram.” In 17th and 18th centuries, “scheme” took on the meeting of “plan, design; a programme of action,” the OED says, and “Hence, a plan of action devised in order to attain some end; a purpose together with a system of measures contrived for its accomplishment; a project, enterprise. Often with unfavourable notion, a self-seeking or an underhand project, a plot.”

The negative sense really took off in the mid-19th century, with the verb “to scheme,” meaning “To devise as a scheme; to lay schemes for; to effect by contrivance or intrigue.” 

In most British English dictionaries, the benign use of “scheme” is usually the first definition; in American English dictionaries, the deceitful definition usually leads.

Journalism style guides are aware of this two-faced meaning. The Associated Press stylebook says of “scheme”: “Do not use as a synonym for a plan or a project.The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage explains a little more: “The British use the term to mean plan or project (highway construction scheme). But in American usage, scheme connotes a devious plot.”

Other English language usage guides seem almost tone deaf: The Chicago Manual Style uses “scheme” throughout in the benign way, discussing a “design and color scheme,” a “printed pagination scheme,” a “rhyme scheme,” for example. In the “good usage versus common usage section” appears “an illicit scheme,” discussing not the word “scheme,” but the difference between “elicit” and “illicit.” That section of Chicago is written by Bryan A. Garner, whose Modern English Usage (formerly Modern American Usage) does not use the word “scheme” at all.

It’s important for journalists, too often accused of bias, to be aware of the connotations of the words they use. Just as most would translate “boot” to “trunk” or “lift” to “elevator,” to make them clear to their audience, so they should know what the intentions are of the words their sources use, to be able to “translate” them in a way that accurately reflects the information.

Otherwise, journalists could be accused of a “scheme” to skew the news.

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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.