Mind their language

The linguistic dirt on that dirty little word tax

AAP/Mick Tsikas

The word tax (and words derived from it like taxable, taxpayer etc) loomed large in Scott Morrison’s budget speech – 79 mentions in fact. Tax figured less prominently in Labor’s reply (27 mentions) – but, mind you, Malcolm tells us this is because Labor is hiding its tax plan.

Such is tax, the dirty little word that it is. For some pollies, tax is the Lord Voldemort of the election cycle, he-who-must-not-be-named. For others, tax serves as a rallying cry worthy of Braveheart, but so lacking in definition, we electoral mortals are left saying: “please explain?”

So, let’s take tax to task and get down to brass tacks on tax.

Tax or task and the company it keeps

As a verb, to tax has been in the language a long time, first appearing in the 13th century. Its noun form is the same word as task – simply a different pronunciation (think of aks and ask). Task is the original form (just like aks has the pedigree – something many find a little hard to bear).

The meanings of task and tax eventually diverged and the words parted company. They still share a sense of “obligation”, of course, but the link is now pretty remote.

Interestingly, in this year’s budget speech they did make a few joint appearances in the form of the “new operational taskforce within the Australian Taxation Office”. A new figurative meaning appeared in the 1600s and both the verb and noun tax took on the sense of “burden, strain” (and the budget’s repeated “tax burden on Australians” perhaps struck some as a bit of linguistic overkill).

Of course, as British linguist J. R. Firth once famously put it, “you shall know a word by the company it keeps”. The meaning of tax does derive in part from its constant companions, and in both the budget speech and the reply these were overwhelmingly agreeable companions like cuts, relief, concessions, discounts, incentives, (lower) rate, tax-free, offset, deductions, breaks, subsidies and plan (“to support jobs”).

Yet, behind closed doors, tax has a sordid relationship with many of these companions. For George W. Bush, tax relief was a sneaky way of framing tax cuts for corporations and the rich (but we should note Bush certainly didn’t invent this term!). Linguist George Lakoff writes:

For there to be [tax] relief, there must be an affliction, an afflicted party, and a reliever who removes the affliction and therefore a hero.

Notably, the Coalition used tax cuts and tax relief interchangeably in its speech. However, Labor, in its reply, used tax cuts in relation to business but tax relief for everyday Australians.

Political consultants carefully construct such pairings to influence how we think about issues. US political strategist Frank Luntz recast the estate tax on deceased millionaires as the death tax, and by virtue of co-locating the two surest things in life, hit a six (or in the case of the Americans, a home run) for the American Right.

This year’s Australian mob has been less successful in political pairings as the debate around negative gearing shows. It’s been playing political ping pong for some time now, and hanging out with different chums depending on the party – is it a positive plan to help housing affordability or a housing tax on Mum and Dad investors?

The latter pairing has largely been called out as a weasley furphy, speaking of which …

Totally not a tax, we swear

As in the case of other dirty words, the taboo area of tax has spawned an array of weasely euphemistic expressions over the years.

Some of you might recall the British government’s use of the expression community charge for the local tax introduced into England and Wales in 1990. Community provides that caring halo for many expressions and crops up in a few officially sanctioned euphemisms like community care, community treatment centre, community home, to name just a few.

In fact the expression community charge didn’t catch on in the UK, and its synonym poll tax won out, though it was eventually replaced too. Poll tax has a pretty nasty ring to it now, but it’s a tad more pleasing than the earlier capitation tax. Both refer quite plainly to payment per head, but neither does much to make the tax any more appealing.

Foreign expressions are always good for a bit of gloss. French has given us levy (from the verb meaning “to raise”). It’s an oldie, with us since the 1400s, and has lost a bit of its sheen, but you have to admit it still has a more cheerful ring to it than tax.

And anyone looking to put a classy spin on taxation could perhaps think of applying a bit of French dressing in the form of some of those other, older tax words from French, like gabelle and octroi.

In the US voluntary contribution enjoyed a short career – it’s such as obvious example of out-and-out doublespeak it’s hard to believe anyone was taken in by it. For most, voluntary means something like “acting by choice”. Not in this context. For voluntary here read “forced”.

It seems that US President Richard Nixon was the first to “misremember” the meaning of voluntary, when in 1971 he imposed his voluntary wage and price controls (illustrating another effective camouflage – conceal the unwelcome under a cover of words, and the more the better).

And with that, we sign off as your resident Pundit McNuggets (a term dating to the 1996 US elections and meaning, “pundits who provide light or superficial coverage of an issue”). In the coming weeks, we’ll take on sloganeering, Aussie idioms, and the dole.


Co-authored with Howard Manns.