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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

globalization

(1980’s | businese | “expansion”)

Here we step once again into the vexed, murky waters of politics and economics. No place for your humble observer of the language, but this flabby gem is indeed a new word, although it follows on the heels of two slightly older expressions, “global village” and “global economy.” (My father referred to the global village in an e-mail, which inspired this week’s post. Thanks, Dad!) “Globaloney,” a favorite of mine, came along later. Ever since the Renaissance, we Europeans have been moving outward, exploring and colonizing. From the beginning, most of that restlessness has been driven by capital — money looking for more commerce or access to more resources. In the U.S., we started late, and we needed about 125 years to pacify our part of North America and get the network firmly in place to ensure that the rich keep getting richer. That flowered as far as it could in the 1920’s. But then hiring picked up again a mere fifteen years later, during the next war, and we were ready to take over the world in 1945, by which time we were the only ones available.

More trade was good for business, so the money that had formerly zipped around the U.S. now started to zip around the world. Not just money, but information and people, too. There are strong arguments to be made in favor of travel and trade, which among other things tend to prevent nations from growing too isolation-minded and turning into Nazi Germany. The price of tea in China became less of an abstraction, but so did the cost of contaminated imported food. Globalization opens up lucrative opportunities for a few in position to take advantage, but it also increases the risk of contagion and epidemic, medical, financial, or otherwise, for all of us.

Globalization has made a lot of people mad, from left-wing laborers to right-wingers leery of world government. It’s easy to depict it as one more instance of the plutocrats taking away our livelihoods; the rise of the word has unquestionably gone along with the widening gap between rich and poor. (But there is always a loud, well-financed chorus to point out that hiring cheaper labor and exploiting new regions is just sound business sense.) “Globalization” started to appear in newspapers in the early eighties, firmly the property of businessmen talking about finding new ways to make money. The emphasis then often fell on high labor costs (“outsource” came along around the same time), and the word was more often used to justify laying off U.S. workers than to justify opening new markets or new mines.

Back then, it was not unusual to talk about globalization of markets, or particular industries, or technology, or the economy itself. But it was already possible to talk about globalization unadorned, a mysterious, superhuman process that just happens, which cannot be diverted or appealed. That’s generally how it’s used now, and such usage benefits those at the top of the heap. If your language conveys the notion that the ability of wealth to accrue and exercise power is natural and unstoppable, most of us will forget that beyond a certain level, inequality is caused by decisions made and policies carried out by living, breathing human beings, who individually put their pants on one leg at a time, but who collectively run the economy in their own interest. There’s nothing automatic or natural about it, and we have to fight hard to be heard at the best of times. When we stop paying attention, whether out of self-satisfaction, fatigue, or wishful thinking, the one percent will bend the rules further to take more for themselves and squeeze the rest of us still harder.

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