Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

"Downgrade" on the Upswing

All this week, politicians and pundits have been busy reacting to Standard & Poor's downgrade of the U.S. debt rating from AAA to AA+, the first such credit downgrade in American history. The word downgrade itself has taken on powerful significance, to the point that it has vaulted into contention for Word of the Year.

Much as subprime was the American Dialect Society's choice for 2007 Word of the Year and bailout was selected for 2008, this year a term encapsulating the country's economic woes could be the frontrunner for the honors. (For 2009 and 2010, technology took center-stage, with tweet and app winning.) Will downgrade be the term that represents the zeitgeist of these troubled times?

Downgrade isn't a new term, of course — the Oxford English Dictionary currently dates it to 1858, and Google Books easily takes it back another decade. Back then, a downgrade (first spelled as down grade or down-grade) primarily described a descending slope on a railway line. That is using grade in its "gradient" meaning rather than, say, a score for student performance. But downgrade became extended to refer to other types of declines, for instance, a "downward course or tendency in morals, religion, etc.," as the OED puts it. And as a verb, downgrading came to be used in the mid-20th century for the lowering of all sorts of people and things from previously lofty status. Both the noun and the verb have an antonym in upgrade, which made a similar move from describing physical upward slopes to any improvement to a higher standard.

In the case of Standard & Poor's, the grades in question are investment ratings for long-term credit given out by the agency, with AAA ("gilt-edged") as the highest rating and D (for default) as the lowest. The decision by S&P to remove the gilt from the edges of the U.S. credit rating came just days after the contentious vote in Congress to raise the debt ceiling. Naturally, interpretations of the downgrade have broken down on party lines. Democrats were first out of the gate, with David Axelrod and John Kerry taking to the Sunday morning talk shows to brand the S&P decision as the "Tea Party downgrade," putting the blame on Tea Party-inspired Republican intransigence in the debt-ceiling debates. Republicans returned fire soon enough, instead labeling it the "Obama downgrade."

Indeed, as Republicans gear up to oppose President Obama in the 2012 elections, it appears that downgrade will serve a handy political purpose as an emblem of the administration's perceived policy failures. A website called The Obama Downgrade, launched this week by the conservative public-policy group Let Freedom Ring, offers the message, "Obama downgraded US, should WE downgrade Obama?" (Preaching to the choir, the site features an online poll, to which 91% have responded "yes.") Already, the semantic flexibility of downgrade is in full rhetorical effect.

In the Washington Post, Monica Hesse riffed on the downgrade theme to compare America's fortunes to various other devaluations, from the Honda Civic's Consumer Reports ratings to the Zagat rating of chef Gordon Ramsay's New York restaurant, Maze. "Maybe everything, in the court of public dissection, has been downgraded," Hesse mused.

One downgrade that Hesse failed to mention was the demotion of Pluto from planetary status in 2006, when the International Astronomical Union decreed that it was merely a "dwarf planet." But Pluto got a consolation prize when the year was over. The American Dialect Society named plutoed, meaning "demoted or devalued," as Word of the Year. That probably wasn't the most forward-looking choice (five years later, we're not talking about the U.S. credit rating getting plutoed), but downgrade clearly has more heft, a resonance that will be remembered. As chair of the ADS New Words Committee, I'll be keeping tabs on downgrade, and we'll see how it stacks up against other contenders at year's end.

Do you think downgrade has what it takes to be Word of the Year? Let us know in the comments below!

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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:

Friday August 12th 2011, 11:30 AM
Comment by: keith M. (Kula, HI)
As we well know, words can be powerful weapons. (I feel certain that I am not the first to note the following: move the "s" to the front of the word "words," and we have "sword.") Ergo I had rather vote for an "upper" word. In the current economic climate, who needs another "downer"?
Mr. Zimmer, I do appreciate the historical perspective on the word - past and contemporary.
Friday August 12th 2011, 3:17 PM
Comment by: Wood F.
I'm disappointed in the ADS' typical choices for Word of the Year of ephemeral, moment-specific words that carry little weight even a few years later. "Plutoed?" Come on. It would be like Time Magazine naming Mark Zuckerberg as Person of the Year. Oh... wait...

But I suppose it's a tall order, identifying a word that will have staying power based only on its coinage or rise in popularity during the previous single year. I think a more reasonable task is identifying a "Word of the Decade" as was done in the ADS' 2009 voting. "Google," "blog," "green" -- all of those words are likely to become permanent parts of the language, at least in defining our era. Maybe the ADS could switch its annual methodology to harvesting the best new words that came to prominence over the past 10 years, on a rolling cycle. That way, flashes in the pan like "plutoed" would get filtered out.
Friday August 12th 2011, 5:19 PM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
America is great country.
From AAA to AA+, yet it is still in the A grade.
The downgrade was earned after heated argument, so actually it is a win.
What amazed me is the lawmaker's voice for justification. This deserves appreciation. They talked overwhelmingly. Lawmaker's were aware that something negative can happen, and it happened.
So, do not cry for downgrade, instead to avoid future downgrades, we have to work right from this moment. The world changes, people from all other nationality are getting educated. So, they have a voice now. It would be wise if we start listening to the voice of the rest of the world.
Saturday August 13th 2011, 4:42 PM
Comment by: Pam M.
This is in stark contrast to 3 decades of "upgrade," and is doubly significant because it marks a turning in the zeitgeist and culture of the country.
Tuesday August 16th 2011, 10:48 PM
Comment by: pat M.
Depression gets my vote for Word of the Year-pessimistic people are running rampant over the country,causing fear and anger to override our better instincts and vocabulary.Before they took a "leap of faith" off a tall cliff,Butch Cassidy told the Sundance Kid to stop sweating that he could not swim-"the fall will kill ya".Negativity-sheeesh!

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