'THE politicans call it 'hypothecation' - in plain English, that means earmarking . . .' said the Daily Telegraph strapline over its story about the Liberal Democrats' taxation proposals. This was not quite right. I would have thought politicians called it earmarking. is a civil servant's word. The Lib Dems' election pledge to raise a penny tax specifically for schools and colleges was an example of hypothecation, but no sensible politician would air such a word in public.
Newspapers reporting the proposals seemed uneasy with it too. Some of them put inverted commas round it. Others put them round 'earmark' instead, as though they thought this word was too colloquial. No one bothers to use inverted commas when ministers talk about benchmarks, or kickstarts, or level playing fields, or any of the other merry little metaphors with which they seek to explain themselves to the voters. It can only have been the looming presence of hypothecation that persuaded the Daily Mail and the Guardian to give 'earmark' those apologetic quotes.
Hypothecate is a Greek-derived word meaning to pledge, pawn or deposit something as a security; a tenant farmer might have to hypothecate his wheat until he had paid his rent. Its application to taxes dates at least from Macaulay's time, to go by the OED. The bureacrats, most of whom are deeply uneasy with the idea of earmarked revenue, like the word for its polysyllabic weight and the impression it gives that they know what they are talking about even if no one else does.
It also has a forbidding ring, making it sound like a malfunction of some sort, whispered by doctors out of the patient's earshot ('A bit of ossification there, yes, but it's the hypothecation that worries me'). Classical polysyllables make bad political propaganda, which could partly explain why nationalisation and privatisation, for which no popular synonyms have been found, have both in their different ways run into difficulties.