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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: finance


(1970’s | therapese | “exchange-based”)

First there was transactional immunity, a legal concept having to do with grand jury testimony, where a witness may be compelled to testify about a crime he was involved in with a promise that he won’t face prosecution. Traditionally, the witness was assured that no prosecution would follow for a crime described in testimony, and that was known as “transactional immunity.” Congress changed the law so that a witness could be prosecuted for such crimes, but the witness’s grand jury testimony could not be used as part of the prosecution (“use immunity”). A complicated distinction with big ramifications.

In the seventies, along came transactional analysis, encapsulated in the book “I’m OK, You’re OK” by Thomas Harris, which led a fad in the middle of the decade. I don’t remember being aware of the term at the time (though I was aware of the book), and the definition seems to have been rather vague, but the idea was to examine how you dealt with other people in order to improve such encounters (transaction = interaction). In practice, that meant you did role-playing exercises to help you deal more pleasantly with others and learn more reliable methods of engaging with them. Transactional management, which emphasized maintaining an existing system through rewards and punishments, invoked a related concept in businese.

Today the catch-phrase is transactional data, which is what Google and Amazon want: detailed records of your purchases, on-line or otherwise, so they can wring more money out of you. Here we have a straightforward adjective formation meaning “of or pertaining to a transaction,” which has been around a long time and represents what is probably still the most common guise of “transactional.” In the seventies it was not used often; it’s much more common now.

Despite the continuing prevalence of the business usage, the real story here is the shift from the legal and financial to the human, which began with Harris. The word is often used now to talk about the ways we treat each other, related to the older concept of “keeping score” in a relationship. A connection between two people, like any other kind, does require some scorekeeping. Any relationship I’ve ever seen, healthy and successful or otherwise, involves a certain amount of paying attention to who has done what for whom lately and making adjustments accordingly. But a predominantly or purely transactional bond doesn’t last very long, because it forces you to focus on the wrong things. Instead of making the most of your partner’s pleasing or compatible traits, you wonder whether you’re getting enough for what you’re giving, and that line of thought leads to dissatisfaction and resentment.

A recent example from the wider world of politics: several commentators described as “transactional” Michael Bloomberg’s apology for excessive stop-and-frisks by the NYPD during his term as mayor. The word conveys the idea that the apology was insincere, a kind of bribe offered without any real reflection or concern about the effects of the policy. It’s safe to say that Bloomberg’s move asked for a quid pro quo; he was in effect asking African-Americans to reconsider him and even give him their votes. In larger social contexts as in smaller personal contexts, the transactional requires an ongoing series of exchanges, which must involve calculation and record-keeping (writing, humanity’s pre-eminent means of keeping records, developed out of commerce, after all). Now that the term has moved into social science jargon to talk about the interpersonal, it is firmly anchored in two realms and seems unlikely to budge from either.

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glide path

(1980’s | enginese (aviation) | “home stretch”)

Literally, a glide path is a guided landing route with a defined angle, designed to give the aircraft the best chance to land safely. Not necessarily easily or smoothly, you understand. In financial and economic use, it does suggest smoothness or ease: a course one creates to ensure a planned, predictable transition to a desired state. Today, it is often used to talk about saving for retirement, as in creating an investment strategy designed to provide maximum returns and security. The idea of smoothness in getting where you want to be still predominates. In all these senses, “glide path” implies that you are headed for the finish line.

While use in the financial realm continues to predominate, I sense a change of direction for this expression, which suffers from the same malady as any other that conveys reassurance — it is easily misused. Because “glide path” in popular usage (not that it’s used much in everyday conversation) suggests not only smoothness but security — a sense not only that you are coming for a safe landing but that you are landing in a safe place — it is no great matter for the unscrupulous to adopt it to disguise difficulties and uncertainties. Bureaucrats especially seem prone to such flummery, confidently assuring members of Congress or their superiors that everything is on the road to success and prosperity, where a less biased observer might notice significant shortcomings. I likewise sense that the phrase is starting to develop an ironic side, on which the destination may not be so desirable after all, sort of a modern version of Matthew 7:13, “broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction.” We may start to see more and more references to a “glide path to perdition” and that sort of thing. Keep an eye out.

The phrase goes back a ways in aviation, at least to the 1940’s. Arthur C. Clarke wrote one novel that was not science fiction, and it was titled “Glide Path,” a fictional account of the development of ground-based radar to help land planes during World War II, says Wikipedia. Seems straightforward enough. I haven’t done an aviation term in a while. The others I’ve covered are “ahead of the curve,” “flame out,” “under the radar,” and “wingman.” For some reason, all of these have turned into hardy perennials, expressions that have grown not only commonplace but so well assimilated that we no longer think of them as new expressions. (“Glide path” hasn’t reached that eminence yet; it remains a phrase mostly encountered in print, smacking faintly of the unfamiliar.) Considered among the total number of new expressions that have washed into the language over the last fifty years, aviation is a minor source. But the ones it does produce have a good track record. Flying continues to have some mystique, I guess. We still carry around the image of the taciturn yet heroic captain bravely saving the plane, or dedicated fighting men driving the enemy out of the sky. Or maybe the reproductive success of aviation-born expressions is random, driven by a conventional combination of evocativeness, the rise of new concepts requiring new words, and coming along at the right moment. But I don’t think so. There’s a reason terms sprung from aviation have done so well.

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(businese (finance) | “take advantage of,” “turn to one’s advantage,” “exploit”)

A word that has always baffled me slightly. Most words are pretty easy to define with a little thought; I can usually come up with two or three synonyms for an ordinary word, and at least one for the less ordinary. “Leverage” has many definitions, and it has an unusual quality: Just when you think you understand what you’ve got pretty well, some other usage comes along. The word seems too simple to encompass such a large field. I learned it first in the ancient Archimedean sense of having a solid enough base to exert force or pressure in a certain direction. (As a boy, I heard the word pronounced “leeverage,” but in my family we said “levverage.”) I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but it was already available as a verb in businese, whence it has sprawled in ungainly growth. In the financial world, leverage has mainly to do with debt. I’m not a good guide to financial jargon, but the basic idea of leverage, as I understand it, is that you borrow money to put yourself in a position to borrow more money from someone else. So you might borrow money to purchase another company, and you use those funds as collateral for the loans you have to take out to complete the larger transaction. That’s a simplified description of the leveraged buyout, which caused a lot of trouble in the eighties. In this sense, “leverage” seems clearly descended from the Archimedean; the borrowed assets provide means to liberate larger sums, as a place to stand provides means to move the earth. An older way to define leverage is as an institution’s ratio of debt to equity — the higher the ratio, the more debt the company carries. In fact, sometimes “leverage” is a straightforward substitute for “debt” in the financial press.

And that’s the puzzling thing about “leverage.” The thread of debt runs through it — debt, which should be a source of weakness rather than strength — but the word “leverage” itself lends it power. While loans with a reasonable probability of being repaid are the lifeblood of capitalism, when too many people lend too much money at too much risk, things can go south in a hurry, as history has shown time after time. That proves true within single corporations as in entire economies. Money that you can spend now and don’t have to repay until later continues to exert a fascination for any capitalist, and debt carefully managed may lead to substantial gains. Maybe I just have puritan ideas about how money ought to be handled, but I wonder if the notion of gaining strength from debt rather than sapping it is what gives me trouble with this word.

Well, it’s not just for bankers any more, leverage. (Like “monetize,” it is a technical term in economics that has seeped into the greater discourse.) Now it commonly serves as a transitive verb meaning roughly, “make the most of what you have to work with.” So you leverage data gleaned from your web analytics to increase your customer base, or you leverage your skills or talent to create a side hustle. These examples still reek of the financial, but the word is used casually by people far from the industry. It means roughly the same thing as it did in the financial sector in the seventies, when banks leveraged assets all the time — using whatever they could scare up to produce larger gains. Which is still a recognizable echo of our old friend Archimedes. The idea of surprising gain from relatively little effort persists down through the ages. But now the idea seems to be let’s use whatever we have lying around or can generate, whether it provides more bang for the buck or not. Leveraging is successful if it produces any benefit at all, even if everybody has to do extra work. Leverage has lost its ease. (Wait, wouldn’t that be “lvrag”?)

In politics, leverage means brute exercise of power over others for any sort of gain, political or personal. The distinction matters little; leverage can be used on or against anyone for any purpose. Finding the lever that gives you the ability to put your opponent into an untenable position, with very few holds barred. An idea as old as politics, clothed in a new word.

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exit strategy

(1980’s | businese | “way out,” “cutting one’s losses,” “covering all the bases”)

You would think this is a militarese term, but it isn’t, or it wasn’t. Used almost exclusively in the financial press until 1990, its definition was straightforward: a contingency plan to get out of an unwanted obligation, partnership, or any foreseeable situation in the most advantageous way possible. In case everything goes south, figure out an escape route that will spare you penury or embarrassment. Before 1990 it appeared typically in quotation marks, but that was no longer true by the mid-nineties; by the time William Safire immortalized it in a December 1995 column, it was common currency. The financial usage has not disappeared, but in the public mind it has been overwhelmed by the political. Candidates looking to get out of a losing campaign picked it up before 1990, at least in a couple of cases. After 1990, foreign policy analysts grabbed the expression, and it soon became de rigueur for invasion planning. How do you take out the bad guys, bring your people home, and avoid a quagmire?

You don’t have to be an astute observer of foreign policy to know that the advent of the new expression has not made our military leaders any better at formulating or executing workable plans — we are still stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq. Which raises a significant point: In warfare, only invaders need an exit strategy. If you’re being invaded, you just have to sit there and take it, unless you can force the invader out by causing enough casualties and mayhem. (An official of the invaded country might also need an exit strategy, a way to leave town quickly and quietly if the political winds shift.) When a financial institution needs an exit strategy, it’s usually a matter of extricating itself from an internal decision that isn’t working out, or of getting out of a contract between two more or less equal parties. In the military, you have to commit offensive action; there’s no need for an exit strategy if you never leave the base. When one field borrows an expression from another, naturally the meaning may change, but this is quite a twist.

The odd thing about the expression is that it is not used literally. You don’t hear one nervous moviegoer ask another, “What’s our exit strategy?,” in a crowded theater. It doesn’t sound right when you’re talking about a building or vehicle. It may, however, be used whimsically to talk about a job, relationship, or some other important sector of our lives. It’s not hard to imagine two brokers discussing the most effective ways to get away from their employers, or two men discussing how to get away from the girlfriend if she loses her appeal. (Mercifully, Paul Simon didn’t call the song “Fifty Exit Strategies for Leaving Your Lover.”)

It’s a little far-fetched, but I hear in this phrase the echo of stage direction. Here’s how it might be used: Imagine a king suffering a reverse and announcing that he intends to lash out blindly and abandon reason from now on. Like Macbeth, for example. When he finishes, the stage directions say, “Exit King. Exit strategy.” Yes, it is a little far-fetched.

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(late 1990’s | businese | “executive suite,” “boardroom,” “front office”)

It’s “C” as in CEO, CFO, CIO, COO, etc. — the C-suite stands for the very top brass, possibly a physical location or, more often, as shorthand for the executives themselves. So there are many things it doesn’t stand for: Caesarean, clostridium, century (as in “c-note”), control (as in “c-panel”), capitalist (o.k., maybe that one), California, the programming language, the middle note on the keyboard, etc. Or the mathematical sense of “constant.” My high school calculus teacher used to say, “Don’t forget the seven c’s” while we were taking quizzes, to remind us not to neglect an essential part of the solution to an indefinite integral. Then there’s the homonymy with “sea,” “see,” “si” . . . It’s a rich range of referents, but here it is stands for something less even than “chief”; the “C” stands on its own and the abbreviations no longer need their spelled-out forms. “Chief-suite” would sound very strange.

I believe the expression was invented by consultants (another “c”), and it started to show up in the late nineties in LexisNexis. It soon made its presence felt all over the English-speaking world — in the U.S., U.K., and Australian business press — suggesting the easy global reach of the rentier class, through which new vocabulary gets around the world faster than the latest strain of the flu. “Executive suite” just took too darn long to say, I reckon, but the jargoneers reached for “C-suite” rather than “E-suite,” for alliterative reasons? I started noticing it in news reports in the last year or two, so it is not a specialized term any more. It would still be theoretically possible to misunderstand the phrase, but it’s generally quite clear in context.

“C-suite” is fast and glib, and glibness goes with arrogance. The informality of the expression seeks to draw our attention away from the sheer power exercised by a very small group of men (mostly) at the top. Two quick spondaic, sort-of rhymed syllables represent the power to make or break thousands of people, yet they make that power seem less forbidding. If you get the right ear of the right boss at the right time, fortune smiles upon you, and if you don’t, well, there’s a tough adjustment period ahead. Not for the boys in the C-suite, for you. They will do fine, getting paid hundreds of times what the rest of us make whether they do the company any good or not. The bigger the screw-up, the more they take home, and even outright lawbreaking shaves only a few million off the total compensation package. In the U.S., we have historically tolerated this sort of thing until the infallible C-suite boys drive the entire economy into a ditch, which they came close to doing in 2008 before the government bailed them out, allowing a semblance of economic normality — the rich get richer and the rest of us don’t do as well — to persist. What happened in 1929 was worse, and now the government (both parties, but especially the Republicans) is busily replicating the conditions that made the Great Depression possible, by encouraging Brobdingnagian wealth disparities and refusing to regulate financial institutions. The only good thing that happens during such calamities caused by a tiny group of oligarchs is that the rest of us finally see them for what they are — amoral, irresponsible greedpigs — and stop buying their lies. But even then the C-suite never goes away or gives up much. At worst, they have to pull in their horns for a while.

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(1990’s | athletese | “bust,” “trouncing”)

A word that has gone in several directions since I learned it in junior high phys. ed. while engaging in every boy’s favorite sport, wrestling. (The term was also used in football, even then, though not as much.) It’s a tackle, basically, where one person falls on another and holds him down, both having started from a standing position. Now it’s used in quite a variety of fields, most but not all of them direct descendants:

Another from athletese: in archery and target shooting it was used as an adjective to describe a bow or long gun that is easily disassembled, as in a “takedown bow.” You will encounter this sort of use now and then in other fields, to the point that “takedown” may serve as the opposite of “set-up.” It doesn’t seem to be used often that way, but it is available for spot duty. (As in “Takedown is simple and requires no more than a screwdriver.”)

Law enforcement: a raid or mass arrest that breaks up a gang or ring, or captures a single wanted lawbreaker. Sometimes simply the literal meaning: tackling or restraining. The expression is probably used more commonly in this context than any other. It came in during the nineties and was common by 2000. That year’s movie about the arrest of fugitive hacker Kevin Mitnick was called “Takedown.”

Computer repair: Also common, but showed up later, after 2000. Nothing complicated here; the expression is used to mean “destruction or neutralizing of malware, spyware, etc.” Though the process is a lot simpler when a wrestler does it, the implication of overwhelming an opponent remains in computerese.

Now, thanks to YouTube and related sites, we have an internese usage: removing a web site or unlicensed content from a site or sites (also after 2000). The web has created fertile fields for copyright infringement, violation, and steamrolling, and the simplest possible noun formulation for the act of countering it does appear to be “takedown,” which is either an echo of the athletese sense or just formed from the verb phrase “take down,” as in what we do to web sites that steal our content. Or both. It’s what you do to a web site, or a wrestler, or a fellow chef?!

As in these charming Brooklyn cook-offs, which are known as “takedowns,” promising vigorous competition from high-end chefs to see who can make the best use of a specified ingredient. The television program Iron Chef had the same idea — was the word takedown ever used on the English version? Could have been. The word has a more general range here, implying no-holds-barred combat, though jokingly. It might be a corruption of “throw-down” or “beatdown.”

“Takedown” is used in financial contexts (where the definition is surprisingly complicated — see Investopedia for details). This sense is not obviously related to the others and probably has an independent origin. It is older than any of the others except possibly the wrestling term from which the others are descended. Presumably its relative opacity prevented it from influencing everyday language with the same pertinacity as its athletic cousin.

Finally, the word seems to have broken out of its assorted ghettos and now has a much wider, figurative sense: thorough or comprehensive defeat that one person (or entity) inflicts on another — the verb we used to use for this sort of thing was “demolish.” More specifically, the act of anatomizing the deficiencies of another, of making a mockery of their principles (or adherence to them), and thereby diminishing or destroying their credibility. It is always a forceful term, suggesting a decisive defeat or injury. This is all part of the great efflorescence “takedown” has enjoyed since 2000, and it likely portends increased frequency in its use. Now politicians throw it around, gossip columnists, talk show hosts. Sportswriters or financial reporters may use it in the figurative sense without thinking twice. It is unquestionably a handy term, one for which it is difficult to think of precise pre-1980 equivalents. Just don’t confuse it with “takeaway.” But do juxtapose it; I call your attention to the efforts of a fellow blogger who is engaged in an ongoing takedown of the takeaway.

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(businese | “risk”)

A word of many uses in everyday language to which one has been added in the last forty years. A quick review of the wide range of meanings this term had in the seventies, say:

a. the act of learning about or experiencing a stimulus, especially an unfamiliar one (“exposure to jazz, French culture, etc.”); goes with “to”

b. the direction your window, etc. faces (“southern exposure”); no preposition

c. for photographers, it meant how much light came in before the shutter closed, or simply a frame of film that had already been shot (you could even have a double exposure, and that’s no double entendre)

d. inadequate covering of body parts not normally displayed, voluntarily (“indecent exposure”) or involuntarily (“die of exposure”); no preposition

e. personal embarrassment caused by no-longer-secret conduct (e.g., “he was disgraced by his exposure as a tax cheat”); goes with “of”

f. attention from the popular press, what one gets when one is a celebrity; no preposition

g. potential harm caused by ingesting or absorbing hazardous substances from the environment (such as sunlight or air pollution or radiation); goes with “to”

And now there’s

h. financial risk caused by heavy investments in a weak sector, or just too much debt; goes with “to.” Probably a descendant of g., or at least that’s the one it most closely resembles. In the aftermaths of the 2008 crash, and the 2000 crash, and the 1987 crash, and the 1981 crash, we’ve gotten used to the idea of toxic financial instruments and practices, and this usage is a natural outgrowth. While “exposure” had this meaning well before 1980 in financial jargon, the increased fragility of the U.S. economy in recent decades has no doubt helped push it outward into the general vocabulary. (Even in a purely financial context, it also partakes somewhat of e. If it partakes likewise of d., you’re in bad shape; even a good lawyer won’t be able to do much.)

One way to sort definitions d. through h. is to place each one by its potential for undesirable results. With e. and g. and most likely h., you’re worse off than you would have been otherwise, but d. and f. may cut both ways. Exposure of the body may subject you to injury, or it may give you the warped satisfaction of forcing another person to participate unwillingly in your sexual gratification. Even in the latter case, you’re still vulnerable, to arrest if nothing else. As for f., today’s darling of the gossip pages is tomorrow’s disgrace, if e. kicks in and your secret vice is found out. It may not be that dramatic; a celebrity may fall from favor simply by attracting too much attention (“overexposure”). It may be fun at first, but any kind of exposure ultimately invites danger to one’s reputation, or even one’s life.

This week’s term, with its implication that one has been caught doing something wrong, points to a peculiarity of English: we don’t have a reliable word for revealing hidden good deeds rather than hidden malfeasance. “Expose,” “unmask,” “uncover,” “reveal” itself — they all imply that one has been up to no good. “Unveiling” might work, but we use that more often about statues than about people. I was thinking about this as I tried to translate a German title that included the phrase “Enttarnung eines Helden.” “Introducing a hero” or “Exhuming a hero” might get the point across, but the first is imprecise and the second ghoulish. “Recovering a hero” has an unfortunate association with upholstery. How do you reveal that someone has acted heroically when the available verbs suggest villainy?

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death spiral

(1980’s | financese (from athletese) | “vicious circle,” “irrevocable decline”)

“Death spiral” is a noun, but as we use it today it is influenced by the verb “to spiral,” as in “spiral out of control.” However auspicious a spiral may be for the quarterback, in most contexts it portends widening disaster, an ever-growing series of calamities, each fed by the one before. I can’t be the only one who hears an echo of Yeats’s “The Second Coming”: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre . . . Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” But maybe I am the only one that finds a resemblance between “death spiral” and “perfect storm.”

In its classic form, the death spiral denotes a financial situation in which the seller faces declining revenues and responds by raising prices. Thereupon even fewer people buy the product or service, leading to untenable losses. The first industry in which commentators adopted the expression consistently was utilities, especially electricity. Now we’re most accustomed to hearing the phrase with reference to the health insurance marketplace; that usage was common long before the Affordable Care Act. In the eighties it appeared in in non-financial contexts, but even today buying and selling still provide the most fertile ground. By now it has spread; I’ve come across references within the past year in articles about opiate addiction, declining sperm counts, Venezuela, etc.

There’s another, more specific, financial use that denotes a particular type of corporate raiding: an equity firm buys into (or lends money to) a small publicly owned company, agrees to lend or invest more provided the stock price doesn’t go below a certain level, then drives the stock price down by selling large blocks of shares — robbing the company of its assets and forcing it into bankruptcy while walking away with a profit. (Ain’t capitalism grand? This is an example of what I call vulture capitalism, except vultures don’t kill their prey first.)

For all that “death spiral” conjures up disaster and political gamesmanship, the expression comes originally from ice skating, not aviation, as I had guessed, though it describes airborne maneuvers occasionally. (How it made the leap from skating jargon to the business world I don’t know.) It denotes a move in pairs skating, where the woman holds her partner’s hand as she circles him, one leg in the air, bent all the while at the waist so that her upper body is parallel to the ice. When well-executed, it’s breathtaking. The “death” part has to do with sheer riskiness, as far as I know, but anyone who knows anything about ice skating — or high finance — is invited to jump in here.

I am indebted to lovely Liz from Queens for providing another expression for the blog. Inspired, as always.

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(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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(1980’s | bureaucratese? legalese? financese? | “recoup,” “recover”)

No longer the sole property of sportswriters, this noun-verb complex has invaded the financial pages and legal journals in force. When I was young, you clawed your way back into a contest through determination and effort, not quitting until the game was on the line and you had a chance to win. It didn’t have to be a single game; it could happen over course of a season, as in a baseball team clawing its way back into the pennant race. It might be used in the context of an individual sport like tennis or golf, but I think it more often went with team sports. In the business world, you might claw your way to the top, but you don’t claw back your way to the top — though you might claw your way back to the top. There’s something ruthless about clawing when people do it; it requires unreasoning vigor, like a jungle cat, blindly fighting its way forward as long as it can move.

In the late seventies, the U.S. began imposing treble (i.e., threefold) damages on defendants who lost certain kinds of civil suits. The U.K. responded by passing a law of their own that gave a British person or corporation the right to recover the portion of the total damages that was not actually compensatory (in other words, the part that was multiplied on after actual damages were awarded). In both the British and American press, this was widely referred to as a “clawback provision.” The expression was much more common in the British, Canadian, and Australian press for at least a decade thereafter, and it is indubitably a Briticism.

My impression was that the expression refers mainly to something governments do, as in the Bernie Madoff case, but a corporation can do it, too; take Wells Fargo’s repossession of stock from disgraced executives in the wake of a banking scandal. I suppose that a business partner could claw back money that another partner had misused, but for the most part it seems to be something an institution does. Clawbacks normally occur when assets have been stolen or used illegitimately; when you hear the word, you can be pretty sure that there was some funny business that has been found out, and a governing body, private or public, is doing something about it. (That isn’t always true; for example, when the British government was privatizing public industries in the eighties, they decreed that a certain number of shares had to be available to British investors. In some cases, that meant “clawing back” shares bought by foreigners to make sure enough shares were available.) The government generally needs some kind of judicial ruling, but a corporation needs no more than the approval of the directors.

In truth, the new expression here is “clawback” (n.) since “claw back” (v.) has been a permissible construction for a long time. (As we saw above, “clawback” also serves as an adjective. I hope I am cold in my grave before “clawbackly” becomes standard English.) But its present sense seems to have arisen around the same time, and I wouldn’t want to state with certainty that one preceded the other, though I would guess the verb came first. It has never left legal and political contexts, or spread outward from them. Law and justice must have their own language.

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