Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

A Brief Glossary of Recession-Speak

With the deepening of "The Great Recession" (or whatever we end up calling the current crisis), our language continues to reflect the tough economic times. Here is a primer on recession-related terminology that has been circulating in recent months, as we struggle to put the global financial uncertainty into words.

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 or collector bank).

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

bankster: combination of "banker" and "gangster" (revival of term from the '30s). (For more on bad banks, zombie banks, and banksters, see this Word Routes column.)

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. (Obama and Senate Democrats support legislation that would 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. (Read more in this Word Routes column.)

stim package: journalistic shorthand for "stimulus package" (aka 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 (Read more in this William Safire column.)

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. (Hear more in this NPR report.)

The home front

duppie: acronym for "depressed urban professional" (also "downwardly mobile urban professional").

furcation: a polite term for unpaid time off (combination of "furlough" and "vacation").

homedulgence: 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. ("Homedulgence," "chiconomic," and "bleisure" are buzzwords promoted by the trend analysis firm The Future Laboratory.)

Have you noticed any new recessionary words? Add them in the comments below!

[Update: Welcome, Reuters readers!]

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

Taking a look at "bad banks," "zombie banks," and "banksters."
Get Your Shovels Ready!
"Shovel-ready" is a hopeful term among the economic doom and gloom.
The Summer of the "Staycation"
Last summer's "staycation" was an early warning of austerity on the home front.