When someone says the word, "reparations," what do you think they mean?

The question is not merely a matter of Humpty Dumpty-style semantic debate. Notwithstanding their persistent unpopularity, reparations for slavery are a rising item on the national agenda. Several Democratic contenders for the presidency, including Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, have endorsed them in principle. The list of co-sponsors of H.R. 40, a bill that Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has repeatedly introduced to establish a commission to study possible reparations for African Americans, now stands at 50 and counting, with three new co-sponsors added just last week alone.

But it's not clear that the politicians endorsing the idea and the advocates pushing for it are all talking about the same thing — and that ambiguity may be at least partly intentional.

As words are wont to do, the word, "reparations," has already changed its meaning at least once. Before World War II, the word was most often used in the context of war to refer to payments made by the defeated side to their victorious opponents in compensation for their losses in conflict. What was being repaired was the relationship between the states in conflict; in exchange for reparations paid by the defeated, the victorious powers accepted that the conflict was over.

After World War II, the word took on a different connotation, as being payment to repair a wrong. Thus the German government paid reparations not only to the Soviet Union (who defeated them in war) but to surviving Jewish victims of the Holocaust, reparations that were extremely controversial in Israel at the time precisely because they implied that Germany’s debt was thereby largely settled. Similarly, decades later, the United States paid reparations to Japanese families who had been interned during World War II, an explicit admission that their internment was unjust.

That's the context within which I had understood — and previously discussed — the use of the word “reparations” in regard to the legacy of American slavery. Most Americans would hopefully agree that slavery was a massive injustice that was compounded by the Jim Crow era's oppressive denial of basic rights and freedoms to African American citizens. The purpose of reparations would be to formalize that recognition, put a dollar value on the cost, and repair the breach by paying compensation to the victims' descendants.

As a program, reparations faces enormous hurdles, most obviously its potentially enormous price tag and the fact that it appears to be a zero-sum proposition, transferring wealth from the population at large to a distinct group of beneficiaries. And there are profound philosophical objections to the idea, not only from among whites but also from among some African Americans. But precisely because the wealth transfer could be substantial, it could potentially make a real dent in the wealth gap between blacks and other Americans. For advocates of self-reliance, reparations could provide the seed capital for a host of black small businesses that could build enduring wealth. For America as a whole, meanwhile, they hold out the promise of closure, of a moral debt having been discharged, and therefore a national ability to move on to a conversation less characterized by grievance.

But are reparations even intended to be a specific proposal? I am no longer sure. I recently appeared on a panel discussion about reparations which included a representative of one of the leading reparations advocacy organizations. And one thing he — and some other panelists — stressed repeatedly over the course of the discussion was that their concept of reparations was not limited to monetary compensation for the descendants of slaves. Affirmative action, greater support for education, inclusion of more Afro-centric elements in curricula, opposition to gentrification, even a personal commitment by African Americans to invest in their communities and pay “reparations to ourselves,” could all potentially be included under the reparations rubric. And far from settling America's debt to former slaves, the political goal was more to settle the question of whether that debt was and should be central to American politics, the subject around which efforts to repair it would subsequently revolve.

One panel discussion does not a trend make. But the same expansive vagueness is manifest in the way many of the politicians who have endorsed some form of reparations talk about the subject. Senator Cory Booker's proposal for "baby bonds," for example, would provide starting capital and the germ of a nest egg to families regardless of race. But because it would have the practical effect of reducing the generational compounding of wealth inequality, and would therefore disproportionately benefit African Americans, the policy has been touted by some as a possible example of reparations.

What is the reason for this linguistic ambiguity? On the panel, I suggested that one reason for the increased salience of reparations could be disappointment with the impact of the Obama presidency on race relations in America. Inasmuch as that is the case, advocates of reparations may be responding to a felt communal desire to press unfinished business when messages of hope and transcendence are no longer as viscerally compelling. Politicians, in turn, may be choosing to repackage their preferred program as a form of reparations precisely so as to be perceived as responsive to that demand coming from the grass roots.

As with the Green New Deal, another exercise in expansive ambiguity, what is intended to be constructive may yield the worst of both worlds. Opposition will inevitably draw the most alarming picture of the implications of reparations, while advocates may have a hard time pointing to concrete accomplishments — or may even face a backlash from their own supporters if they claim accomplishments that fall vastly short of the very large spiritual and economic goals of the movement.

If we're going to have a national conversation about reparations, we would do well to divide that conversation into two phases: one about the past, and one about the future. The most compelling argument made by the advocates of reparations is that the sheer scope of economic and social consequences of not only slavery but the compounding edifice of racial discrimination is still poorly understood by most Americans — including those Americans of all racial backgrounds who have grown increasingly obsessed with linguistic slights. Racial reconciliation surely does involve integration of these facts into our national narrative.

But when we use the term “reparations” to talk about the future, it should have a specific, generally-agreed meaning, if only because without that real debate is impossible. Most people think “reparations” means a payment to redress and settle a past wrong; other approaches should be properly described as alternatives to reparations rather than varieties thereof. Most important, we should be wary of grounding our obligations to one another as citizens overwhelmingly in terms of specific harms perpetrated by an oppressive group or class. Poverty, disability, and disease rightly make claims on our collective conscience even when there is no specific and identifiable collective fault. We mustn't let the identification of discrete past harms cause us to forget that far deeper principle.

Those who prefer a more amorphous approach to language should remember how Humpty Dumpty's dialogue with Alice wound up. After declaring that he could make words mean whatever he liked, the great white egg pronounced:

'Impenetrability! That's what I say!'

'Would you tell me please,' said Alice, 'what that means?'

'Now you talk like a reasonable child,' said Humpty Dumpty, looking very much pleased. 'I meant by "impenetrability" that we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life.'