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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: economics

risk-averse

(1980’s | academese (economics) | “cautious”)

This expression carries a couple of odd dichotomies considering how straightforward it appears. The most obvious pertains to that which it modifies; either persons or corporate bodies — whatever the Supreme Court says, they’re not the same — may be risk-averse, though presumably the risk-aversion of a corporation is ultimately traceable to individuals, whether executives or independent shareholders. More interesting is the fact that risk-averseness may proceed from two entirely different kinds of experience. A conservative corporate board avoids sudden shifts and grand initiatives because they feel prosperous; there’s no incentive to rock the boat. Yet it is a tenet of pop psychology that those who have lived through times of deprivation are suspicious of all but the safest investments, and, in extreme cases, may refuse even to keep their money in banks. (Both sides have in common assets to protect; if you have nothing to lose, there’s no point in being risk-averse.) But then there’s an absent dichotomy that one might naively expect to find in an expression beloved of bankers: the distinction between sensible risk likely to pay off and a crazy scheme. The risk-averse will stay away from both, desiring only the steadiest and safest.

The expression comes out of the discipline of economics and was most used originally in finance, starting in the sixties and becoming commonplace by the eighties. Soon it came to be used often of politicians and lawyers. Among corporations, insurance companies attract it the most; their risk-aversity comes from a visceral understanding of actuarial tables. Yet any stodgy company merits the term. Slowly but surely over time, it has spread into other kinds of prose, with movie reviewers and even the odd sportswriter resorting to it nowadays. More kinds of writers use it to describe more kinds of people — it’s not just for stockholders any more. The point of the compound seems to be neutrality; it strives to avoid any imputation of prudence or cowardice, and largely does, as far as I can tell.

In a previous post I remarked on the curse of capitalism — if one guy works harder, everyone has to work harder — and risk-aversitude bears the seeds of a different manifestation of it. In competitive markets, each company watches the innovations of others like a hawk. When they succeed, the other competitors follow; when they fail, everyone else drops plans to do something similar. Television works this way, though maybe less so now, when there are so many networks (an obsolete word, I know). Any change — introducing a new character into a popular series, or a new show about a controversial subject — carries with it a chance that your audience will flee in terror. But if it pays off, your competitors take note and resolve to do the same damn thing, backed up by shareholders who noticed that it made big profits for the other guy. Within a season or two, everyone is sick of the no-longer new gambit, and most of the imitators have made no headway. Whereupon they lose advertisers, another risk-averse group famously shy of causing offense, taking the money and running at the first sign of any immoral or objectionable acts that might result in lost market share. (Bill O’Reilly is only the latest in a very long line of such embarrassments.) Sometimes, what looks safe turns out to be dangerous. Risk avoidance, like any other strategy, is subject to misuse born of misunderstanding or bad timing, whether by the humblest investor or the loftiest board of directors.

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off the charts

(1980’s | journalese (economics) | “through the roof,” “extreme(ly),” “amazing(ly),” “off the scale”)

Investigation has led me to revise my understanding of the rise of this week’s expression. First, the old meaning of “chart” is irrelevant; I haven’t found any evidence that “off the charts” has any connection with maps. I thought it had something to do with pop music charts, and sure enough, the earliest reference I found dates from 1956 in Billboard, describing a new record featuring Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby: “It has now registered very strong on all fronts and is just off the charts.” The little bagatelles of research I carry out are not what you would call comprehensive, but the phrase didn’t show up again for twenty years in my usual sources. When it did, it was in the context of graphs displaying economic data. Picture the stock graphic that goes with business news reports on television: the line with an arrow on the end of it zig-zagging up and down across a grid. Now picture that line sloping so steeply upward or downward in a brief period of time that it goes below the x-axis or rises beyond the upper margin. THAT’s “off the charts.” (After all, even the most successful record in history can’t go any higher than no. 1, and therefore must still be ON the charts. “Off the chart” was used interchangeably with “off the charts” in the eighties, another clue that the origin of our expression is not pop music charts, which are always plural. Oh, and by the way, when we say “pop music charts,” we’re talking about record sales, not instrumental arrangements.) The expression was used several times during the primary and general election campaign of 1980 by George H.W. Bush, and that seems to have given the phrase a boost. Bush also played a role in popularizing “out of the loop,” “you’re history,” and “go ballistic.”

Graphs and charts are merely means of making economic data quickly intelligible, so other kinds of statistics — demographic, medical, meteorological — could go off the charts, too. Music sales rankings definitely did spawn a closely related term, “knock (or fall) off the charts,” also available before 1980. That use represents an early stage in the evolution of this phrase. Falling off the charts was as common as flying off of them until 1990 or so, but that concept has disappeared. And the verbs have gotten lazier over time, too. In the old days, “off the charts” generally went with active verbs like “zoom” or “soar,” “slide” or “drop.” Such verbs still crop up occasionally, but today we are much more likely to get the copula, usually “is” or “was.” A noticeable difference, but probably rather minor in the grand scheme of things. And another change in range: “off the charts” is used as an adjective (or adverb) phrase much more often than it used to be, though examples may be found as far back as the seventies.

From political and economic pundits the expression spread to sportswriters, who found its vigor useful in describing athletes. Today it can show up almost anywhere. Politicians are not above using it, but they seem less enamored of it than the rest of us now — or maybe it’s just that the rest of us have caught up. “Off the charts” has not become so overused that it has been stripped of excitement; it still has a little pizzazz. May it keep its sizzle rather than turning into a flaccid echo of itself.

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monetize

(2000’s | businese (finance) | “sell,” “make money off of,” “put a price tag on”)

This was a rarefied financial term as late as the nineties, used almost entirely in discussions of gold prices and government debt. Originally, it was even more literal; you monetized gold by making it into coins, thus converting it into legal tender. By the seventies, though, “monetize” basically meant “liquidate.” There’s the kind of money that you can go out and spend, and the kind of money that is otherwise occupied, like the value of your property, a stake in a business, etc. The former is referred to as liquid; more or less what economists used to call “M1” (for all I know they still do). The government is in a unique position when it comes to controlling the money supply, so it’s not much of a stretch to talk about government “monetizing” debt by selling bonds (for example). Or the government might monetize a portion of its gold reserves by selling it off. When gold prices shot up in the late seventies, a process that has continued to this day in fits and starts, banks and nations alike found an easy way to produce ready cash. That made “monetize” something of a dirty word to conservatives, who see disastrous inflation as the inevitable consequence of any expansion of the money supply.

Monetizing has long involved selling, and it still does. Sometimes the sale was indirect, and this notion has grown utterly commonplace, as the term has also come to mean something like “commodify” (convert into a commodity that can be sold — an extra step). Sometimes the sale is more indirect still, as an on-line business selling advertising on the basis of the number of page views it attracts. Only the most hardened cynic would regard this as a literal sale of the customers, but the practice definitely trades on their existence, and “monetize the customers” has a rather sinister sound. There is another meaning I should mention, although it has always been more marginal: assign a value to. You monetize something by figuring out what it is worth; whether you go on to sell it for that price is irrelevant.

For decades this word belonged to governments, corporations, and large financial institutions. It still does, but no longer exclusively. It has taken a popular turn, and nowadays a small business or an individual can indulge just as easily. An artist might monetize her work by selling it on-line, for example. The growth of “monetize” has coincided with the growth of the internet as a marketplace, and that is not a coincidence. Before 2000, anyway, the word had a technical sound that might convince the unwary that the speaker had arcane financial knowledge. For those who wanted to appear cutting-edge, or just edgy, it was an easy to word to adopt. By the time everyone figured out all you meant was “exploit for personal gain,” you’d be sitting pretty in the Caribbean somewhere.

When a term from a certain professional jargon (finance, in this case) slides into general use, it cannot help but broaden its meaning, applying to more areas or simply taking on new definitions. (Examples: ahead of the curve, curate, template.) In one way, the meaning of “monetize” hasn’t really changed, but it is an exotic word that gravitated naturally to an exotic means of commerce: the web used as a means of selling just about anything. “Monetize” represents yet another appropriation of specialized vocabulary by the masses, and in such cases one feels the loss. Our language cries out for terms that fill narrow niches and allow us to describe very particular states, categories, or objects; every word that becomes less precise detracts from our ability to understand what’s going on. As “monetize” has become sloppier, it has become more crass, at least to my ear. I wouldn’t say the word was ever noble, exactly, but it was reserved for relatively grand situations, not the property of any third-rate businessman trying to take advantage of a new market.

I must remember to thank my father, not just for raising me but for suggesting “monetize” many months ago. Sometimes these things take a while to germinate.

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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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meltdown

(1980’s | enginese | “disintegration,” “sudden sharp decline,” “tantrum”)

A term ushered into everyone’s lexicon by a film called The China Syndrome and a nuclear power plant called Three Mile Island in March 1979, the year before this blog’s usual cut-off date (admittedly a highly movable and redefinable affair). The word existed before then, certainly, most likely invented by nuclear engineers. The failure of a nuclear reactor’s cooling system would cause the fuel rods to heat up uncontrollably, so that they would melt through their thick-walled chamber into the ground, with unknown effects — but it wasn’t hard to imagine massive releases of ionizing radiation with dire long-range health consequences, even if catastrophe were avoided in the short run. “Meltdown” in any of its varieties has always been associated with disaster, and just as fundamentally, the inability to control events. The first use I saw on LexisNexis dated from 1976 (Newsweek), and it turned up here and there for the next two or three years, before the deluge. “Core meltdown” was a common elaboration back then, although the modifier was unnecessary even before Three Mile Island. A steady stream of disasters, nuclear and otherwise, has kept the word in the news ever since.

“Meltdown” burst on the scene propelled by an unholy mix of popular culture and what passes for real life around here (it was real enough to those of us who grew up close to Harrisburg, unsure whether we would have to evacuate). It was one of those expressions, like “go postal” or “bobbitt,” or “been there, done that” that roared into the language. And what since? The word moved quickly into other contexts, and by the mid-eighties it was natural, if slightly fast, to use the word to talk about financial collapses, or sports teams blowing a big lead. This use points up a questions about meltdowns: How sudden are they? Screwing up the economy or losing a game takes place over an appreciable period of time, but we also use the word to denote a more or less instantaneous downfall. “Meltdown” was quickly absorbed to talk about glaciers and ice sheets, too — another gradual process — as it is still used today. In this sense, it makes a certain amount of sense to talk about something melting down. Otherwise, “melt down” doesn’t seem comfortable as a verb. Your kid may have a meltdown, but your kid doesn’t melt down, like a sno-cone on a hot day. It’s much more dramatic than that.

Which brings us to the semantic leap wrought in recent years: “meltdown” meaning “tantrum” or “conniption.” I haven’t found a clear trail into the lexicon for this usage, but an informal poll of my sister, who was raising children in the eighties, confirms that like the other metaphorical uses, it was thoroughly established by the end of that decade. Nowadays meltdowns are mainly the property of celebrities and kids, but anyone can have one; it’s basically the same as “losing it.” I’m not sure that was always true. It may have been used originally to describe only children’s tantrums and spread to the rest of us from there. The word does capture the cataclysmic violence of a screaming fit delivered by a child bent on having his or her way, a child who has lost all restraint, like a reactor core which due to an uncontainable chemical reaction is no longer responsible for its actions. When used to describe human behavior, the word might be considered indulgent — a way of excusing or mitigating bad conduct by implying that the offender isn’t really responsible — or it might just be a weary acknowledgment of the inevitable. Thwarted kids can be damnably anti-social, and sometimes you just can’t keep them from going overboard.

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human capital

(1990’s? | academese (economics) | “employable population,” “what one has to offer”)

In 1979, an economist named Theodore Schultz won the Nobel Prize. He was noted for studying “human capital”; in fact, he used the term in his acceptance speech. At that time, the word remained the exclusive property of economists, in or out of academia. (The first citations in LexisNexis come from Paul Samuelson’s Newsweek columns in the mid-1970’s.) President Carter used the phrase in a Labor Day Proclamation in 1980. After that, it began to show up more often in reporting and editorials. Politicians and journalists started to use it, and it has become pretty ordinary by now.

This phrase bears a slippery resemblance to another expression that has flourished since my youth, “human resources.” If we are human capital en masse, then each of us might be considered a human resource, just another bit of carbon-based raw material for the all-embracing economy, from whom all blessings flow. But that isn’t how we use “human resources,” which doesn’t exist in the singular. It’s part of a company — the part known as “personnel” when I was a boy — in charge of hiring and firing and employee relations. Oxford Online defines “human capital” to mean “the skills, knowledge, and experience possessed by an individual or population, viewed in terms of their value or cost to an organization or country,” which covers pretty thoroughly the ways in which the term is used.

Most of the time the emphasis falls on “capital” when this expression rears its head. The purpose of human capital is to benefit an employer — that is, it’s what you bring to the job. That means the employee can be treated as a commodity, whose salary and benefits amount to rent for whatever attributes she has that boost the employer’s profits. (Here‘s a useful distillation of that point of view.) Economists blandly employ this sort of thinking every day: You are what you’re worth. But it also possible to place the emphasis on “human.” I found a brief but rather touching post on deloitte.com that urges thinking about your employees as more than additions and subtractions on the balance sheet. Unlike physical capital, human capital needs to be nurtured and recognized for its good work. If not, it can always leave the employer high and dry if it feels mistreated. As long as there’s another boss out there willing to act a little more humane and less capitalist. (Of course, the employer is also free to rescind investments in human capital, in the form of education, vocational training, affordable housing, better health care (or child care), etc. If the boss isn’t satisfied with the return, he can always cancel the benefits.)

Many screeds stand to be written about this phrase, so glibly tossed around by bureaucrats and technocrats. To me its most disturbing aspect is the way it makes us worth anything only insofar as we contribute to the gross domestic product — only as long as someone is making a buck off us. The category “human capital” is generally opposed to “physical capital,” but they are both judged by their profit potential; all other talents, abilities, and attractions are strictly subservient. Another point against the phrase: it turns us all into servants — in fact, you don’t have to mumble much for it to resemble “human chattel,” which may in turn remind us of cattle. It’s true that even the few at the top are, strictly speaking, part of the whole economy’s pool of human capital, and therefore serve the same remorseless, soulless capitalist machine as the rest of us. But the one percent — who may, like the machine, have little in the way of soul — have grasped the levers of power. They may serve the system, but they don’t serve the boss.

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on the bubble

(1990’s | athletese | “in a state of uncertainty,” “(could go) either way”)

The more I looked into this phrase the cloudier it became. Its meaning seemed relatively straightforward, but it is used several different ways, most of which seem to coalesce around a state of uncertainty, of not knowing what’s in and what’s out. In education, “on the bubble” means “a little behind but capable of improving.” In poker, “on the bubble” means “finishing just out of the money,” and “the bubble” refers to something like “crunch time.” Dr. Emmett C. Murphy defines “on-the-bubble behavior” as “any behavior that can compromise the achievement of an organization’s mission,” which is even more specialized, not to say idiosyncratic. Well then, why should “on the bubble” mean “on the threshold” or “on the brink” or “waiting to have one’s fate decided”? Apparently no one knows.

“Bubble,” an interesting word in its own right, has a number of metaphorical senses — we heard it a lot after the start of our latest recession — but “on the bubble” doesn’t seem to have much to do with any of them. I should mention the literal bubble in a spirit level, which could be where “on the bubble” comes from. There was the “gastric bubble,” an early form of weight-reduction surgery. There was a specialized sense in environmental regulatory jargon meaning something like “one power plant’s total output of pollutants” (the regulators looked only at overall emissions, so within that “bubble” you could get away with a sector that produced too much pollution if you could compensate somewhere else). The last two terms were current at the right time, in the 1980’s, but it’s hard to see any connection between them and “on the bubble.” Remember the boy in the bubble? Another unrelated bauble.

The Phrase Finder cites a reference from the 1970 Indianapolis 500, meaning pretty much what we use it for now, and the first uses I found on LexisNexis did in fact come from stories about the fabled auto race, but not until 1985. It was common among sportswriters before any other type of journalist.

Although it’s not a precise synonym, we used to say “borderline” to express the same general idea as “on the bubble.” Sometimes “on the bubble” sounds a lot like “on the edge,” which makes me wonder if the origin of the expression has to do simply with the unreliability of the standard soap bubble. As long as you’re on the bubble, you have a chance, but if it pops, you don’t make the team, or you don’t get elected. It can give way at any moment and leave you flat.

spike

(1990’s | businese | “skyrocket,” “shoot up,” “sudden sharp increase”)

This word starts to show up around 1980 among those concerned with finance. It usually occurred somewhere near words like “interest rates” or “inflation.” I imagine it’s related to the image of a sudden upward slope in a graph or a heart-rate monitor, which raises the question: Does “spike” carry with it the idea of a sharp upward movement followed by a sharp downward movement, or does it encompass only the upward movement? (You don’t see “spike downward” nearly as often as “spike upward.”) I found some sketchy evidence that it was first used for the combination, but I think it has lost that sense and now refers only to an increase. In other words, the idea that a spike must be temporary didn’t catch on.

The phrase “rate hike” was well-established and may have helped “spike” rhyme its way into everyday language. It’s hard to tell if the noun came first or the verb, but there seems to have been little distinction. It is still generally used in financial contexts, but it has gotten around, as in “murder rates spiked last year,” or “a spike in membership.”

“Spike” has been many verbs: “spike the guns” is an old expression, dating back to the beginning of the eighteenth century. It wasn’t the least bit metaphorical, merely an application of the original meaning, drive spikes into something — in this case, a cannon’s vent. Editors spike (kill, opt not to publish) news stories. It has distinct meanings in several sports: baseball, football, volleyball, and probably others. Or “form (the image of) a spike,” as how a flower grows or how one styles one’s hair. It can mean “gore,” as in what a bull does, though it’s not often used that way. I won’t even mention what overeager freshmen do to the punch. And now, a new one, less than thirty years old, probably but not blatantly descended from “be shaped like a spike” — vigorous, gets your attention, and easy to figure out. Check in on English vocabulary every few decades, and you’ll have no choice but to say, “My goodness! I just can’t believe how you’ve grown!”

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