The global economic crisis has been a good one --- for those who have an interest in the development of word play. The past five years have seen immense linguistic innovation.
Consider the most recent example. A new phrase has gained currency these past few weeks. Commentators galore have used the term “fiscal cliff” to describe the state of public finances in many developed economies. US Fed chairman Ben Bernanke used the term during a speech he gave to US law makers last week. Rating agency Standard and Poor’s used it in a recent research note. Various newspapers have also said that the US, Europe and Japan are teetering at the edge of a fiscal cliff.
It is now five years since the first rumblings of what came to be known as the “subprime crisis” were heard, in the summer of 2007. And new words, new phrases, or new meanings for old words, have tumbled out of distinguished mouths. So we were introduced to the concept of “toxic assets” at a time when the entire Western financial system threatened to implode. Earlier, there was the “Minsky Moment”, in honour of the forgotten economist Hyman Minsky, who had warned that financial instability led by debt accumulation is inevitable in modern economies.
The collapse was followed by a tentative recovery, heralded as “green shoots” by Bernanke in early 2009. He also gave us “quantitative easing”, a term now widely used to describe expanding central bank balance sheets. The economic recovery in 2009 was timid, leading to all sorts of questions about a “new normal”. But policy makers were soon accused of trying to paper over the cracks rather than trying to set right the structural flaws in their economies; they were merely “kicking the can down the road”.
One solution to the structural problem was “austerity”. Some prefer “stimulus”. Paul Krugman has given us the “confidence fairy”. And we in India can never forget “decoupling, the optimistic belief that economies such as ours could continue to do well despite the global crisis.
These are some examples. Many of these words and phrases are harmless euphemisms, a type of linguistic neutering of concepts to make them more acceptable. They are now central to so much of public discourse on the global crisis.