The language of crisis

July 5, 2009

Every crisis seems to throw up new words and expressions that fill our consciousness for a few days or weeks and then fade as quickly as they appeared.

During the 2007 UK floods, we learned about the water ‘bowser’, a tank used to distribute clean water to flood-affected neighbourhoods. The recent MPs’ expenses controversy produced expressions such as house ‘flipping’ and ‘redaction’ of expenses forms.

According to Professor David Crystal, a linguistics expert at Bangor University, the growth of blogging and online message boards has enabled words to enter popular usage more easily. And when they are used outside of their original context, for example when people other than MPs talk of ‘flipping’ their main and second homes, they can become part of our everyday language.

One wonders about words used to describe the current financial crisis. It’s a fair bet that ‘credit crunch’ will be adopted to describe any time we are hard up, but what about, for example, ‘quantitative easing’? Is it possible we will talk about ‘QE’ when we are injecting some liquid into our personal money supply?

I remember a time when the expression ‘moral hazard’ was all the rage in the pages of financial newspapers to describe how the big banks would be allowed to fail if they acted recklessly and got into trouble. That phrase, along with the threat, has seemingly had its day and has been replaced by the expression ‘macroprudential legislation’. It is a policy now in favour with the UK government to minimise systemic risks rather than prevent problems in individual banks. It may help in creating the necessary checks and balances for the banking industry, but I can’t see it catching on down at the Dog and Duck.


The power of words

May 28, 2009

George Orwell understood the power of words. In his essay Politics and the English Language he warned of the dangers of political doublespeak which he said can make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.

I have no doubt that were he alive today, Orwell would be adding a message of support to the campaign to free the Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi who has been under house arrest for 13 years for opposing the military regime of Burma. The United Nations says that her detention breaches international standards of due process and fair trial.

Aung San Suu Kyi will be 64 on June 19. To add your message of support visit