Recession Spawns an Expanding Lexicon for a Shrinking Economy

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: terms from the recession. Dictionary editor Ben Zimmer is back with us. And it sounds like he's going to start with a popular term these days, "shovel-ready."  

(Sound of shoveling)

Ben Zimmer
BEN ZIMMER: "Well, shovel-ready is a term that's been used to describe infrastructure projects that are ready to go when stimulus money is available. The new stimulus package has passed the Congress and they are prioritizing those projects that are already planned out. And all they need is the money to get started and people can start digging in and getting to work right away."

AA: "And we know that some of these projects are not in the traditional sense of building roads or rebuilding bridges, they're more health care investments, educational investments. Is there a term to describe those, or are those in danger of being left out because they can't claim they're shovel-ready because they don't involve shovels -- "

RS: "Or don't involve digging?"

BEN ZIMMER: "I think that there are metaphorical shovels at work in those other types of projects. Even though it starts with construction projects, things that are obviously related to digging in with shovels, it's definitely been extended to other things. So you can be shovel-ready even if you don't have a shovel."

RS: "What other terms have come about in recent months because of our economic situation?"

BEN ZIMMER: "Well, we've heard a lot of terms coming out of the banking sector. The Treasury Department has said that it's going to evaluate banks by using a 'stress test.' In the medical sense, you can undergo a stress test to see, for instance, how strong your heart is. So that's used as a diagnostic method in medicine.

"Stress tests are also used, for instance, in information technology to test software, to see how robust the software is given different situations. In the financial sense, it's to determine how robust a bank or other financial institution is to withstand further economic conditions that could increasingly get worse in the future."

RS: "And now we have words like 'good bank' and 'bad bank' and 'zombie bank.' What are those?"

BEN ZIMMER: "Well, the zombie bank is a term that's been used to refer to a bank that really should have gone bust but it's being kept alive by government guarantees in the form of bailout money, for instance. So there are banks that people are saying 'Well, it's really just surviving because it's being propped up by the government.' So it's a zombie -- it's really already dead, but the government is somehow trying to keep alive a bank that's already dead because its stock is almost worthless, its value has really gone under. And so people are talking about zombie banks in this way.

"But there are a lot of banks that are in a kind of a gray area right now, where it's unclear what their future is going to be. And what happens with them will really be contingent on what happens with the government taking over their bad debt, what's often called 'toxic debt' or 'toxic assets.' And so the proposal is to have a government-run bank, which has been labeled a bad bank, that would allow these private banks to unload all of their bad debt.

"There are people in the government who don't like that term. They would prefer to call it an 'aggregator bank' because it aggregates all of this toxic debt from the private banks and allows the government to deal with it without the government completely taking over the bank."

RS: "With the term bad bank, you really know what you've got, though."

BEN ZIMMER: "And oftentimes we need some distance on a particular event before we really know what the terminology is that we're using to describe it. For instance, we don't really even know what to call this current economic downturn. There have been lots of suggestions about calling it the Great Recession or the Great Credit Crunch or various other terms. But like the Great Depression in the nineteen thirties, we probably need some distance before we really have a label that will stick."

AA: Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus, an online thesaurus and dictionary. So what would you call the economic situation right now? Give us your suggestions and comments at our Web site, where you can also find a whole list of recession-related terms that Ben has put together. And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.


Words of the Recession
Ben Zimmer, executive producer,

The Banking Meltdown

bad bank: proposed government-run bank that would allow private banks to unload their toxic assets (some suggest a more benign term: aggregator bank).

zombie bank: a bank that should have gone bust, kept alive by government guarantees.

bankster: combination of "bank" and "gangster" (revival of term from the '30s).

stress test: Treasury Department test for the nation's largest banks, to evaluate whether they have adequate capital to withstand further downturns (metaphor borrowed from cardiac stress tests).

clawback: system by which a financial company can take back bonus payments paid to employees in previous years to make up for losses in the current year.

malus: like a "clawback," allows executive bonuses to be held in escrow over an extended period and returned based on failed performance. (Union Bank of Switzerland introduced a "bonus/malus" system.)

cramdown: involuntary imposition by a court of a reorganization plan over the objection of creditors. (President Barack Obama supports legislation to allow federal bankruptcy judges to "cram down" mortgage loan balances on the primary residences of people who file for bankruptcy protection.)


Stimulating Terms

shovel-ready: used to describe infrastructure projects that are ready to go when stimulus money is available. Winner of the Most Likely to Succeed category in the American Dialect Society's 2008 Word of the Year voting, with "bailout" the overall winner. (Word Routes column)

stim package: journalistic shorthand for "stimulus package" (officially known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA) -- shortened even further to stim pack.

TIGER: Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (a contrived acronym from the Department of Transportation); new transportation projects will be stamped with the TIGER logo.

three-legged stool: Obama's metaphor for a multi-pronged approach to economic recovery (restoring jobs, restoring credit, regulatory reform).

porkulus: epithet used by conservative opponents of the stimulus package, who see it as more "pork" than "stimulus."

Hard Times

crecession: a suggested term for the current crisis, mixing "credit crisis" and "recession" (It hasn't caught on. There have been many other suggestions, from "The Credit Crunch" to "The Great Recession." We might not settle on a name until after the fact (much like we haven't settled on a name for the current decade).

depression: a dangerous word, as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently learned. He dared to use the D-word to describe the global economic picture, but then he issued a correction saying that he meant "recession." Ironically, "depression" was originally used by Herbert Hoover as a more benign term for what had previously been called a (financial) "panic."

hard times: an old phrase that makes an appearance whenever the economy suffers, going back to the financial panic of 1837.

doing more with less: a management cliche used to justify downsizing and belt-tightening. The expression goes back to the 19th century but became a catchphrase during the austerity measures of World War II.

The Home Front

homedulgence / homedulging: the tendency for consumers in a recession to socialize at home, indulging on a smaller scale (similar to last summer's staycation).

chiconomic: style-conscious on a budget (similar to frugalista, recessionista and recession chic).

bleisure: the blurring of business and leisure, as more people work from home or for less strictly defined hours.

(The last three are buzzwords promoted by The Future Laboratory, a British trend forecasting and consulting business.)