Saturday, February 16, 2013


Okay, okay--I know what this really means is that I haven't been paying attention. There is much talk of sequester in the current budget fight. Although I am familiar with the word through the idea of jury sequester, I don't really know what this means when it comes to the senate. When a jury is sequestered, doesn't mean that they are kind of locked away from the world until they come to some kind of conclusion? As much as I can see President Obama wanting to lock up the Congress until it can work out some reasonable conclusions, I don't think this is actually within his authority.


Well, not surprisingly, we are talking about two entirely different things, linked by a shared etymological history.

A jury sequester comes under the part of the definition that means to cause to withdraw or be isolated--to separate or segregate. The government sequestration comes from a legal term meaning to take property into custody by an agent of the court for safekeeping until the legal rights to it have been established. So in one case, people are the focus, in the other, property or assets.

There's a nice short description of government sequestration and how it came to be here. But basically the word has been borrowed from the law to describe a process by which the U.S. Treasury holds back or 'sequesters' an amount of money that Congress has designated be paid out to various agencies and programs but which lies above and beyond the annual budget it has actually approved. On one level it may sound fair, as everyone has to endure their fair share of the spending cuts. But in practice, many programs are exempted from the process and more have become exempt as time goes on, so the remaining programs face cuts that grow more and more onerous.

Let's hope our representatives can work something out before the March 1st deadline. (But don't hold your breath.)

Sequester comes by the usual route: Old French sequestrer from the Late Latin sequestrare, which means 'to place in safekeeping'. This I think is where the two concepts of jury sequestration and funding sequestration come together, I think--in this concept of safekeeping. The Latin goes back to the noun sequester, which meant a mediator or trustee of some kind. The Online Etymology Dictionary has it that this person was originally a 'follower', which would link it to other 'sequ-' words, like sequel and sequential, something I was wondering about.

I was curious about the history of jury sequestration. It is apparently much rarer than our collective anxiety would have it. I wasn't able to discover whether this is only an American practice, although more than one source has it that the first sequestered jury in America actually predates its founding--the trials of the Boston Massacre in 1770. Being a fairly typical American student, I think, at least of the non-Massachusetts variety, the Boston Massacre doesn't actually loom large in my sense of American Revolutionary history, but it was one of those catalytic moments, and a good account of it can be read here.

Any scientists who have gotten this far into this post are by now certainly champing at the bit to point out that the story of sequestration doesn't end there. Chemicals can be sequestered too. Let's round this out with a little animation of the process of carbon sequestration, one of the ways those with more know-how than I have are attempting to deal with climate change.


(The photographs are from Wikimedia commons, and I hope make up in historical interest what they lack in precise relevance.)


  1. Funny, I've been wondering all along about why it's called a sequester (this upcoming one having to do with our government), and kept meaning to look it up, since it is so differently used than the jury type. Thanks for doing the leg work on that, now I don't have to!

    1. I think a lot of people are probably like me, Julie, in not having probed too deeply into the concept of government sequester because they think they already know the word somehow. I bet it's going to come up more and more for people as that March 1st deadline draws nearer.

  2. Fascinating! And, because my life is one long Random Coinciday, I have just been reading about the sequestration of sculptor Camille Claudel, kept in insane asylums for 30 years. She was placed in safekeeping by her family.

    1. Thanks for this additional use of the word, Kathleen. I remember that some years ago that there was kind of a resurgence of interest in Camille Claudel, probably based on a movie.Unfortunately I did not get out to see it.

      One of my friends would say that it is all coincidence, it's just that we don't always see it.

  3. Dear Seana,
    Curiously we in Spanish use the words "secuestro" (noun) and "secuestrar" (verb) to mean kidnap(ping) for asking ransom.
    Very in vogue in Colombia during the 90's as a way to finance terrorist activities.

  4. Hugo, that's a great piece of additional information. I think that's a very ironic way of using the phrase "taking into safekeeping".