The words we need for the state we're in
On reflection, the Monitor's language columnist decides that bailout isn't a bad choice after all for 'Word of the Year.'
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Too obvious, for one thing. Too early, for another: The announcement was out before Thanksgiving. It's like those holiday catalogs that arrive Columbus Day weekend: "It's not too late to shop for Christmas!" I should jolly well hope it's not.
But bailout is certainly timely. And it's won a popular vote. Bailout, defined in Merriam-Webster Online as "a rescue from financial distress," won the distinction because it "received the highest intensity of lookups on Merriam-Webster Online over the shortest period of time." Now there's a window into language that Noah Webster could not have dreamed of.
For conciseness, bailout certainly beats such financial blather as "collateralized debt obligations." And bailout is humbling for the ones to whom it is applied, but ultimately forgiving, like a father going down to the police station to claim the son who's had a scrape with the law.
Bail, both in the sense of bailing out a boat that's taken on water and in the sense of springing someone from jail by posting bond, derive from a Latin verb, bajulare, meaning "to bear a burden."
The one who bails out a boat is making like a water bearer, filling a bucket and emptying it overboard. The one who bails someone out of jail takes on the burden of ensuring that the one sprung appears in court to stand trial and the risk of loss of bond money if not.
Burden is surely a concept that resonates in the current environment. But note that waffle – "current environment." What do we call this state we're in? It's officially – finally – a recession, according to the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research, which gets to determine such things.
We may get some use out of John Kenneth Galbraith's bezzle – his term for those double-counted assets that an embezzler has taken but his victim hasn't noticed are missing.
Intervention is a mouthful but it does capture what is distinctive about the crisis, with agencies like the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department inventing new roles for themselves on a scale not seen since the 1930s.
We may be having our Fabrice del Dongo moment. Fabrice, as French majors everywhere will recall, is the hero of Stendhal's novel, "The Charterhouse of Parma." At one point he finds himself on the field in the Battle of Waterloo, so thick in the middle of the action that he has no idea what's going on. His name has become a byword for the experience of being too close to something to understand or even really perceive it.
Sometimes we can't name things until we're past them, but it's worth trying.
Scientists tell us that when humanity learned to put names to people and things, this furthered the development of abstract thought and language. Two people communicating face to face can accomplish much with gestures and facial expressions, but names allowed people to invoke the wisdom and experience of absent third parties: "Ogh showed me this path to the river."
It always takes time to find words for the state we're in, but it is the duty of all those of us in the words game – the daily journalists on through the novelists and playwrights – to push the process along.