The Origin Of The Term: Fiscal Cliff

The fiscal cliff has economists and politicians in a tailspin. The term is used to describe what will happen if Congress fails to come to an agreement on budget cuts or tax increases by the end of the year. Some say the term is inaccurate, and somewhat alarmist. Linda Wertheimer talks to linguist and Boston Globe language columnist Ben Zimmer about the origin of the term fiscal cliff.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Turn on any news program and you're likely to hear something about the fiscal cliff. Politicians have been using the term to describe the combination of budget cuts and tax increases that will take place automatically on January 1 and could potentially wallop the economy if Congress doesn't reach an agreement before then. Some pundits have suggested that the term fiscal cliff is inaccurate, that it really should be downgraded to the less menacing term fiscal slope.

Here to explain the origins of the term fiscal cliff is linguist and Boston Globe language columnist Ben Zimmer.

Good morning, Mr. Zimmer.

BEN ZIMMER: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: So where does the term come from, fiscal cliff?

ZIMMER: Well, fiscal cliff was first popularized last February when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned of the coming fiscal cliff that would take effect with these spending cuts and tax increases. But the term itself has actually been used for a few decades to refer to various types of budget crises.

There was a Dallas Morning News editorial in 1975 when New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy. And it was talking about what would happen if New York City went over the fiscal cliff. So it's been a powerful metaphor for a while now.

WERTHEIMER: It's rather dramatic. I would even say cinematic.

ZIMMER: Indeed. If you think of cinematic cliffhangers, we certainly have a lot of images. Thelma and Louise going out in a blaze of glory over the cliff is one powerful image. But it actually goes back to the silent movie era. The original cliffhangers were in serial films like "The Perils of Pauline," where the heroine Pauline would find herself dangling off a cliff at the end of one installment and you'd have to tune into the next one to find out what happened to her.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that using a term like this - a scary term like this - actually reflects the situation or maybe causes the situation to get worse?

ZIMMER: Well, there's a lot of discussion about this right now among economists and pundits. Is this really an apt term? Is it a kind of alarmism about this particular moment? And even if it is a bit alarmist, is that useful?

Some have said, well, it's not really a cliff. There's no point of no return. We can always sort of recover, even if we miss certain deadlines at the beginning of next year. Perhaps it's just a slope or a hill. But of course those terms don't pack the same punch as the cliff or the precipice, the precarious situation that is evoked by that metaphor.

WERTHEIMER: Now, there are some rumblings that fiscal cliff might be a contender for word of the year. I understand you chair the new words committee of the American Dialect Society. Does this fall into your purview?

ZIMMER: It certainly does. And we're keeping track of which words and phrases are being used in 2012 and which might best sum up the zeitgeist of the year. Four year ago, when bailout was on everybody's lips, that was the word of the year. We might be in a similar situation, where an economic crisis somehow sums up the year in terms of the language we're using.

So fiscal cliff could beat out other contenders, like, for instance, YOLO, the acronym for you only live once. Or Frankenstorm for Hurricane Sandy. And various other terms that people have suggested as possible words of the year.

WERTHEIMER: That's Boston Globe language columnist Ben Zimmer. He joined us from our New York studios.

Mr. Zimmer, thank you for speaking to us.

ZIMMER: Thank you.

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