Wall Street's game over; economics hits home

Our language columnist looks at the background of the phrase 'laissez-faire.'

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The lazy fair is over, we're hearing from Washington and Wall Street. Reeling from its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, the United States may be headed back to a round of reregulation.

What's that you say? It's not "lazy fair" at all, but laissez-faire?

Quite so, actually. It's a French phrase meaning literally "allow to do," or, to fill it out a little more, "let (them, or people, or everyone) do (what they want)." As Merriam-Webster explains it, it's "a doctrine opposing governmental interference in economic affairs beyond the minimum necessary for the maintenance of peace and property rights."

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Merriam-Webster dates the use of the phrase in English to 1825. But it started out, naturally, in French. The story, as related by Gavin Kennedy, a professor and historian in Edinburgh, Scotland, goes like this: Jean-Baptiste Colbert, finance minister under Louis XIV, asked a "plain spoken merchant" named M. Le Gendre, his first name is lost to history, "What can we do to help you?"

Colbert was what we would today call a control freak. As Professor Kennedy explains in his blog, his "regulation of merchants was notorious for its oppressive licensing, inspection and control which personified French bureaucracy at its worst."

And so M. Le Gendre's response was "Laisser nous faire" – leave us alone, in other words.

Some would say that there's been rather too much leaving alone of financial institutions in recent years.

Has anyone been minding the store – or keeping the house? Actually, housekeeping has more of a connection to economics than many people may realize. Economy, derived from Greek roots, came into the language around 1530 and originally meant "household management." Not until 1651 was it first used to refer to management of the resources of an entire country – political economy, as it was known then. In this sense you could say that home economics, a discipline that has rather fallen out of favor in the groves of academe, is a retronym; originally all economics was home economics.

An interesting discovery I made when exploring all this just now: The "eco" element is an English form of the Greek oikos, or house. This oikos is cognate with vicus, a Latin word for "district," which gave English the word vicinity, for instance. Oikos is also connected to wic, an Old English word for dwelling or village that shows up in countless English place names – Greenwich, Sandwich, and Eastwick (the one in Philadelphia as well as the one in John Updike's fiction).

Much of the discussion of the past few weeks has touched on the contrast between the crisis in the financial markets, on one hand, and the relative health of the economy, on the other. One point I have not heard any of the talking heads make is that these two worlds have different etymological connections as well.

Economy comes from Greek, as we have seen, and finance comes from Latin. And if you think you recognize in finance the root "fin" – as in finish, or the word you see at the end of a French movie, "Fin," signifying "the end" – you're right. Finance is rooted in the idea of "the stuff you need to put an end to your financial obligations."

For a number of financial houses, an end of another kind altogether may be in sight.

This may be a moment to quote Alexander Pope's "Essay on Man":

For forms of government let fools contest;
Whate'er is best administered is best
.

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