Courtesy of Columbia University
History professor Alan Brinkley, of Columbia University, says that before the Great Depression, economic downturns were generally called panics.
The subprime crisis, the credit crunch, the recession — all are clearly part of one enormous economic mess that, at the moment, is nameless.
There's no question that we're living through a historic downturn. But what will we call it?
For months, journalists have been struggling with what name to use.
"We started by calling it the subprime mortgage crisis," says Jonathan Wald, senior vice president of business news at CNBC. "And then the credit crisis, the credit crunch."
Once the recession was officially declared, he says, some people mixed credit crisis and recession and began calling it a "crecession."
Joe Nocera, who covers business for The New York Times, says he uses a variety of names in his reporting: "Pandemic, contagion, crisis, catastrophe, disaster, fiasco — I'm not a big 'crunch' fan. It's not a scary enough word; it's sort of almost like a sports term. But meltdown's pretty good."
Branding A Period
Wald says it's really hard when you're in the middle of something to know what it will be called. So all you can do is brand the hell out of it. In the media, he says, if it's not branded, it doesn't exist: "And that's why fairly early, when it was clear that this was a big moving target, we created a franchise, a heading for a lot of our coverage on the economy, and we called it 'the New Economy.' "
Try to imagine saying this at a bar: "He lost his job, you know, because of the New Economy."
Or imagine saying this 60 years down the road: "Yeah, my grandpa has a thing about buying a house. He never did. I think because he lived through the Crecession."
Maybe what we're living through right now is too fresh, too much in still-happening mode to be labeled. That's definitely what a historian will tell you.
Alan Brinkley, provost and professor of history at Columbia University, says that before the Great Depression, economic downturns were generally called panics — the panic of 1837, 1873 and 1893. So when 1929 came around, it didn't become the Great Depression — or even the Depression — right away. It took a few years.
"Herbert Hoover, who was president in the first years of the Depression, thought panic was too incendiary and would encourage people to panic," says Brinkley. "So he decided to use what he thought was a gentler and less alarming word, and that was depression."
Now, it's funny to think about "depression" as a gentle word.
Other Historic Labels
It's not just bad economies that need historic labels. What about World War I? It was called the Great War while it was happening — although Andrew Cohen, a historian at Syracuse University, says the Woodrow Wilson administration tried to name it something else.
"In order to convince Americans that the war was a good thing, they gave it a series of labels: the War to Save Democracy, the War to End All Wars," Cohen says.
World War I didn't get its name until World War II rolled around. So it was probably for the best that the "War to End All Wars" thing never really stuck.
Allan Metcalf, an English professor at MacMurray College in Illinois, says politicians, reporters and historians aren't experts on naming — but he is. "The book I wrote is called Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success."
Rules For Names
Metcalf says individuals can throw out ideas for names, but they will ultimately be decided by all of us collectively permitting new words into our vocabulary. To get in, the names will need to follow certain rules.
"The basic rule for the success of a new word or term is that it doesn't look new," he says. "I call it camouflaged or stealth words — a word that you hear for the first time and doesn't strike as you as something strange, odd or funny. Maybe it's not in your vocabulary, but it certainly seems normal and natural."
So that rules out clever or cute names. Credit crunch, Metcalf says, has no chance, and neither does the Great Recession. He points out that rhyming is a form of cuteness.
And historians say they're not comfortable citing names for cataclysmic events until they've been used by at least two generations.
Chana Joffe-Walt reports for member station KPLU.