When America Sneezes, Cliches Spread

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As stock markets around the world respond to turbulence in the U.S., variations on a dusty old theme are heard over and over in the media and elsewhere: "When America sneezes, the world catches cold."

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Next we're going to rate the health of the world financial markets as reported by a cliche. Here's a phrase that made the news again and again when stock markets slipped this week: When America sneezes, Asia catches cold.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

A Chinese newspaper said more specifically that when the U.S. sneezes, Shanghai catches cold.

MONTAGNE: In Europe, Britain's Telegraph newspaper reports that when America sneezes, Britain catches a cold.

INSKEEP: The diagnosis was more vague in Johannesburg, where a business publication reports that America sneezes and things get a little feverish in South Africa.

MONTAGNE: That's not vague. That's creative, Steve. The chief economist from Marketwatch.com pulled together all those reports and provides the following analysis. Quote: "When the U.S. sneezes, the rest of the world catches cold."

INSKEEP: When the world's great economic minds gathered for a summit this week in Davos, Switzerland, they scheduled a debate on the question - if America sneezes, does the world still catch a cold?

MONTAGNE: We put that very question to NPR health reporter Allison Aubrey, who's skeptical.

ALLISON AUBREY: Yeah, I am skeptical. I guess the typical spray from a sneeze is only a few feet, which is obviously much shorter than the distance between America and Hong Kong. If the Hang Seng Index catches a cold, it's far more likely to come from shaking America's hand, which is a much more likely way of transmitting a cold.

MONTAGNE: And it may be time to rethink the entire cliche. Maybe when America drinks too much, then Nikkei gets a hangover.

INSKEEP: Or even when the whole world repeats the same stock phrase, we all lose money together.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. JIMMY DURANTE (Singer): Ethyl, if you're catching a cold, let me sneeze for you.

Ms. ETHYL MERMAN (Singer) Boy, you've got the equipment.

Mr. DURANTE: What do you mean? What do you mean?

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) I mean that if I catch a little cold...

Mr. DURANTE: (Singing) I'll sneeze for you.

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) ...on a frosty winter day.

Mr. DURANTE: (Singing) I'll freeze for you.

Ms. MERMAN: (Singing) If you're restless, I will sail the seas for you to prove that we're...

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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