Word Routes

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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.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday March 26th 2009, 9:31 AM
Comment by: Marfy G. (Washington, DC)
Here's one from Gail Collins' column in the NY Times today:

TALF (Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility) — This is the thing Tim Geithner is doing, and, you know, whatever Tim wants ... We like TALF much, much better than TARP, which was the brainchild of former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who had that dumb idea about buying up all the bank’s toxic assets. Which is what Tim is going to do, except it’s going to be way cooler.
Thursday March 26th 2009, 10:41 AM
Comment by: Grant B.
I've made a list of some more on my web site, including "spendulus," "econolypse," and "depressionary."
Thursday March 26th 2009, 3:31 PM
Comment by: Phil K. (West Vancouver Canada)
At least a couple of these have been around for quite a while, and were coined for reasons other than what I will call the current "Great Drearycession".

For decades, 'Clawback' has been used in social welfare states, like Canada, to refer to tax policies designed to recover state paid social security payments from people thought to be undeserving because they also had earned income. The term is also treated in the 1996 pocket edition of Black's Law Dictionary, suggesting that it has had currency in the US for at least a little over a decade.

Similarly, 'Cramdown' has been a term of art in insolvency/bankruptcy practice for over a decade, appearing in Barron's Dictionary of business terms at least as early as the 1994 2nd edition.

There is also the evocative "Dead Bank Walking", but that too predates the current troubles, being the title of a book published in 2000 about the perils of the financial industry. Perhaps we should have paid more attention to it.
Sunday March 29th 2009, 3:50 PM
Comment by: Adele C. M. (Charlotte, NC)
You took me back with duppie. Immediately knew it reminded me of something, five minutes later "yuppie" and "buppie," young and Black urban professionals, respectively. Love the column--got a lot of giggles--not over people's plights of course, but we do have a way with words, Dead Bank Walking, indeed! Had just finished an article in The Economist (Road not taken) where they describe that the need for the spouse's health insurance is keeping some otherwise bad marriages intact. Said it gave a new meaning to the word wedlock.

Tuesday March 31st 2009, 12:23 AM
Comment by: Nancy FriedmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
Not new, but "haircut"--a discount on fair-market value--is getting a lot of play lately. In fact, Mr. Zimmer is cited as a source for William Safire's discussion of the term in his Jan. 11, 2009, "On Language" Column: http://is.gd/pN2m
Wednesday April 1st 2009, 3:08 PM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
The most recent financial crisis expression I've heard is "toxic assets," and it has become strangely ubiquitous, much as "weapons of mass destruction" did at the start of the invasion of Iraq. The way "WMD" dominated discourse seemed at the time suspicious to me, going beyond a useful catch phrase to a sign of groupthink. Similarly with "toxic assets," especially since TA really means "bad loans."
Thursday April 2nd 2009, 10:49 AM
Comment by: Elissa S. (New York, NY)
I don't know if there are many of Daily Show watchers here, but Jon Stewart recently made fun of all the different recession expressions/euphemisms. One that sticks out is the term "legacy assets," which is being said instead of "toxic assets." Also, the "War on Terror" is being coined as the "Overseas Contingency Operations."
Sunday April 5th 2009, 10:37 AM
Comment by: A. Z.
Legacy assets? Toxic assets? I'm not sure I completely get this yet...
Sunday January 24th 2010, 11:23 PM
Comment by: nobodyz Susan
A.Z. commented:
"Legacy assets? Toxic assets? I'm not sure I completely get this yet ..."

From my point of view, the whole "toxic assets" thing is a corporatisation of thought to the bank level, government level, and perhaps the cultural level at some point. The idea behind it being the same as the "reasons" for the Iraq war: someone in major power really broke things and messed up in a very large way and they want to make it sound like it was some 'product' they got by accident that was bad already,in and of, itself.

Example: instead of 'bad bank loan' they wish to call it "Toxic Assets".

Pass the buck, essentially, ... well, damn, if it ain't literally as well!

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