IN THESE PAST YEARS, and notably in these past months, we have heard much of the burden imposed by government on the citizen.

Nothing has been more emphasized in speech and possibly also in thought. This comment is not meant to regret this concern, as some might suppose: Rather, it is to clarify the way the word "burden" is now employed. It has a very special connotation, of which all who cherish good or anyhow accepted English usage should be aware.As now used, "burden" applies only to a very specific range of government activities. Many are not a burden and are not to be so described. Defense expenditure is definitely not a burden; indeed, increases therein are now being proposed. That there is now no wholly plausible enemy does not affect the situation.

Similarly, in recent years large sums, in a range upward from $50 billion, have been appropriated to bail out failed financial institutions, specifically the savings and loan associations. This was not a burden. A clear distinction must be made between a burden and an admittedly unfortunate and costly financial misadventure.

Social Security is not a burden, in no politically acceptable discourse is it so described. Nor are farm price and income supports, although recipients regularly command incomes of $100,000 or more.

Medicare is basically not a burden and is not to be so described. There are many lesser items of expenditure that are not a burden, including health care for members of the Congress.

On the other hand, some functions of government are a heavy burden. Notable are welfare payments, especially those to unmarried mothers and their children. Likewise expenditures for food stamps and child nutrition. While Medicare is not a burden, Medicaid is a real burden.

Education is a somewhat special case. While private education is not a burden, public education, especially in our cities, can be a very heavy load. Here, as elsewhere, burden bears no necessary relation to cost.

And here one sees the rule by which students of contemporary English usage should be guided. Whether a public function or service or regulation is or is not a burden depends on the income of the individual so helped or favored.

As with all linguistic rules there can be exceptions. The National Endowment for the Arts, support to public broadcasting, a few other items not specifically designed for the poor, are a burden. The exceptions, as ever, make the rule.

It is the generally accepted purpose of language to convey meaning. All who use or hear the word "burden" should know the precise and subtle meaning that it conveys.

Basically, something is a burden when it is not for the rich, not for the merely affluent, but for the poor.