Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

May 2009

Verbal Economic Meltdown
The American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson famously referred to words as 'fossil poetry', meaning that the history of a word (its etymology) may preserve a record of long-vanished age. There is another way words can act as a timeline of historical development: charting their frequency of occurrence.

In the wonderful world of lexicography, each new edition of a dictionary is an opportunity to publicize newly added words, and the words which make the best stories are those that best sum up the current moment. In early 2008, while we were working on our Concise English Dictionary, we discussed the word subprime as a contender for the word of the previous year. It was certainly a word one heard often, particularly those of us with mortgages who woke up to Radio 4 every weekday morning; and though the ensuing economic downturn had not hit yet, this scary new addition to the mainstream vocabulary connoted a vague sense of impending doom, not unlike a distant police siren portending the end of the party.

If we search for the word subprime in our corpus of written and spoken English up to 2005, we get only 122 citations (the related word mortgage, by contrast, gets 46,014 citations). By late 2007, citations for subprime had almost doubled to 241. This makes perfect sense, of course: before the housing bubble burst, subprime lending was rarely discussed outside banking and finance. When house prices began to drop, subprime mortgages became a major and much-publicized economic weakness.

subprime is now part of everyday English vocabulary; but do we still hear it every time we turn on the evening news? Probably not. Few, if any, banks are still practicing subprime lending. In fact, the more recent aspect of what has been dubbed the Global Economic Downturn is the lack of any lending, subprime or otherwise. This is called the 'credit crunch', and it spells disaster for the world's already weakened economies, because those business which are not already on the brink of collapse now find it difficult to get the loans they need to continue operating.

In the 2005 version of our corpus, credit crunch gets 231 citations (perhaps demonstrating that people were aware of this potential problem long before it became an everyday reality). In our monitor corpus, which scans up-to-the-minute citations of written and spoken English, credit crunch gets 11,843 hits: quite a jump. subprime, on the other hand, gets only 507 hits: more than in 2007, but not nearly as much as other economic vocabulary. In fact, citations for subprime have been going down again, as the economic crisis continues to evolve.

Using our various corpora, we can calculate a list of words which have increased in frequency of usage from 2002 to the present; topping the list are recession, crunch (of course), bailout, and downturn (the foremost euphemistic alternative to 'recession'). Also high on the list are nationalise, recapitalisation, and liquidity. subprime appears surprisingly far down the list, below such non-economic vocabulary as mayoral, contagion, and the abbreviation ITY, and only just managing to beat out deleveraging and mankini.

These regression statistics tell the story of the Economic Downturn in a nutshell: when house prices began to fall, subprime mortgages led to massive losses for lenders (and use of this word began to rise). Though government bailouts prevented certain banks and financial institutions from collapsing entirely (and led to increased usage of this word), these banks were still less willing and less able to lend, even to solvent customers. This created a lack of available credit, otherwise known as the credit crunch (another new addition to mainstream vocabulary). The negative effect this has had on previously profitable businesses leads to a recession, which the government initially preferred we call a downturn.

But what about that other economic elephant in the room: the word depression? In our 2002 corpus, citations for the business/economic sense of depression numbered only 409, and 241 of these referred specifically to The Great Depression. The 2005 corpus amazingly turns up even fewer citations (106), and the monitor corpus only 660, a fair number of which are either historical (the depression) or psychological senses of the word. Business senses of meltdown, on the other hand, generate a mere 8 citations in the 2002 corpus, 79 in the 2005 corpus (due largely to an economic crisis in Southeast Asia in 2004), and a whopping 2,020 hits in the monitor corpus, due to…well, what we're all living through right now. But at least we're still not using the D-word. Much.

Robert Groves - Editor