8 Essential Shutdown Words You Need to Know

Words in the news can get awfully wonky when Washington is at the center of the story

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Ryan Barber, of Alexandria, Va., and his son Andrew, 2, sit on the grass with a hand painted furloughed sign on the east side of the U.S. Capitol on Monday, July 8, 2013. Barber, who works for the Department of the Navy, was furloughed due to the sequester cuts in the budget.

This week editors at Merriam Webster noticed an enormous spike in “look-ups” for one particular word: furlough. For the thousands of people who want to know what in the Sam Hill that term means and for others interested in shutdown buzzwords, TIME has put together a vocabulary cheat sheet for your reference during this political snafu:

blame game (n.): the ready or vociferous apportioning of blame.

This morning CNN anchor Chris Cuomo used one of the moment’s more popular metaphors: “The blame game,” he said. “Will day two be any different as the president stands firm and Republicans scramble for a new strategy?”  Battling over whether Obamacare should be defunded, Democrats and Republicans have both proved intrepid players in what might be America’s least favorite pastime. The Oxford English Dictionary added this cutesy phrase in 2004, dating its usage back to the 1950s when theater critic Kenneth Tynan referred to “the Blame Game” as “the worst of domestic rituals.”

blink first (v.): to give in during a high-tension standoff between fierce rivals.

Cable commentators have returned time and again to the same cliché: Who will blink first, Republicans or Democrats? The phrase is derived from a kids game in which children stare at each other and whoever blinks first is deemed the loser. The winner of the current blinking contest may end up with a Pyrrhic victory, one gained at great cost. That phrase gets its name from King Pyrrhus, who defeated the Romans in 279 BCE but sustained such heavy losses that he declared, “Such another victory and we are ruined.”

brinkmanship (n.): the art of advancing to the very brink of war but not engaging in it.

This word has been used in more than a thousand news stories in the last month—like this one from the Chicago Tribune—to describe the back-and-forth between politicians in Washington. And you’re likely only going to hear it more as the budget fight bleeds into the debt ceiling brawl. Brink is a Middle English word for the edge or border of a steep place, like, say, a potential economic abyss.

continuing resolution (n.): a measure to fund the government at existing levels without debating a new spending bill.

For years, Congress has used so-called CRs to fund the government rather than passing new appropriations bills. It’s a bit like the government is filling up its car by the thimble, giving itself only enough fuel to get to the next station—and not doing the engine any favors in the process. Lawmakers are currently arguing over a CR. When Democrats say they want a “clean” one, that means that they want a bill that deals with government funding without making big changes to other legislation, like the Affordable Care Act. (The above definition comes from this spiffy Washington Post video on government jargon.)

furlough (v.): to force an employee not to come to work and often dock his or her pay accordingly.

When used as a verb—when one is furloughed—the word is essentially an invitation to stay home and take a pay cut, whether you like it or not. More than an estimated 800,000 federal workers have been furloughed because of the shutdown. Centuries ago, a furlough was more commonly a permit or license given to a soldier to be absent from duty.

shutdown (n.): the cessation of operation.

Etymologists at Merriam Webster say that in the early 20th century, government shutdowns typically referred the government ordering non-governmental entities, like a horse track or a communist-leaning newspaper, to close up shop. In the 1960s, the phrase was used to refer to the feds enjoying paid holidays. Only in the 1970s, when the first government shutdowns like this one occurred, was there a need for the meaning everyone is using right now.

shutstorm (n.): a government shutdown marked by confusion and controversy.

The hashtag #shutstorm is currently making the rounds on Twitter, as veterans are being kept out of national war memorials and closed national parks are hemorrhaging revenue. This term is obviously a play on an excrement-based slang word which Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines as “a very confused or frightening situation.”

slimdown (n.): a nickname for a partial government shutdown, emphasizing that many parts of the government are still in operation.

Fox News started referring to the current shutdown as a “slimdown” on its website this week, with editors saying that despite the furloughs, “hundreds of thousands of other workers are reporting for work, and a patchwork of services remains open to the public.” Ben Zimmer, executive producer of Vocabulary.com, points out that using dieting metaphors to describe government cutbacks is an old trick. He tracked down a 1958 headline from the ­Christian Science Monitor to make his point: “Defense Department Holds Firm on Army Slimdown.” It’s also a good reminder that arguments about money are as old as the American government itself.

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, a weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.