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Opinion

Rough patch, downturn, or sideways waffle: They all spell recession

Why presidents love economic euphemisms.

By Robert S. McElvaine / June 20, 2008



Clinton, Miss.

"Slow economic growth" – that's President Bush's latest euphemism for the growing economic crisis. A couple of weeks earlier, he acknowledged that these are economic "tough times" for many Americans. Those Americans are finding themselves short of cash as food and fuel prices skyrocket, but President Bush has no shortage of words to describe the ailing American economy.

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Just since 2008 began, the president has spoken of "the risk of a downturn," a "period of uncertainty," and "a slowdown." "Our economy obviously is going through a tough time," Mr. Bush told members of the Economic Club of New York in March. Recently he went so far as to say these are "very difficult times, very difficult." His folksy favorite description is to say that the economy is in "a rough patch."

There is, however, one word Bush has not used: "recession."

It's but the latest chapter in a long history of euphemisms that politicians employ in hopes of making economic disasters not sound so bad. "Recession" was itself an early example. When the economy, still not recovered from the Great Depression that had begun in 1929, took a new nosedive in 1937, President Roosevelt's administration wanted to avoid terming it a "new depression" or "resumed depression," so they called it a "recession." Thereafter, "recession" joined "depression" as economic four-letter words.

But, eight years earlier, it has been "depression" that was the euphemism. Herbert Hoover referred to the economic collapse as a "depression" – a little dip – because it sounded far less severe than the word usually used for similar economic breakdowns in the past: "panic."

Although the word "recession" has remained in use for the past seven decades, it quickly became a negative one to be avoided. Leon Keyserling, an economic adviser to President Truman, proposed "downward correction" as an alternative to "recession." In 1958, speaking at the Gridiron Club, Sen. John F. Kennedy joked about President Eisenhower's fumbles with the English language in his attempts to put a better face on the recessions during his presidency by making up the following "quotation" from Ike: "We're now at the end of the beginning of the upturn of the downturn."

In the 1960s, "economic downturn" became the euphemism of choice. Alan Greenspan, while he was an economic adviser to President Ford, contributed "sideways waffle." During the Carter years, Americans were also treated to the marvelous "pause in recovery."

When Mr. Carter's chief inflation fighter, Alfred Kahn, committed the terrible faux pas of letting the word "depression" pass his lips, he pledged that henceforth when he wanted to talk of such a situation he would substitute the word "banana."

Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt gave us the two most dreaded terms for a "rough patch." They also showed us very different ways of dealing with "tough times" such as those Bush admits we are now experiencing, and those very different approaches are instructive in assessing the plans of the 2008 presidential nominees for getting the economy out of its current, uh ... banana waffle.

What many Americans are currently suffering is much worse than a "rough patch" or "slow economic growth." Words matter. Telling the truth matters. Euphemisms are a means of sidestepping the truth, and the first step toward easing the public's fears that government leaders are incapable of dealing with the scary economic crisis is for those leaders to demonstrate that they are not afraid to deal with scary but accurate words. People are more likely to believe that a politician means what he says when he says what he means. We have a lot more to fear than calling a recession a recession.

Robert S. McElvaine teaches history at Millsaps College in Jackson Miss. His latest book is "Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America."

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