Verbal Energy

Close shave and a haircut, two drachmas?

A euphemism originating at the barbershop has become the metaphor for investors perhaps about to lose their shirts on Greek debt.

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Who knew that what they teach at barber college would turn out to be so central to the world of international finance? I'm talking about "haircuts" and the question of how many foreign banks that invested in Greek debt may get one.

General-purpose dictionaries do not seem aware of this use of "haircut." They confine their definitions to the more prosaic: the act of cutting hair, or the style in which the hair is worn, e.g., a fashionable, or awful, haircut. But here's how the Double-Tongued Dictionary ("a dictionary of fringe English, focusing on slang, jargon, and new words") defines the phrasal verb, to take a haircut: "(in finance) to accept a valuation or return that is less than optimal, especially to partially forgive a debt."

It's interesting how metaphors of personal hygiene turn up in the context of financial reversals. If you "take a bath," you will be more socially acceptable, but in a Wall Street context it means your stock price is plummeting. And let's not forget the idiom "being taken to the cleaners."

Recommended: What would happen if Greece exited the eurozone?

It may be that some of us remain conflicted (just maybe) about accumulating material wealth. After all, once an investor has taken a bath and taken a haircut, he may not be left with much of what's sometimes known as "filthy lucre."

That's a phrase that appears five times in the New Testament epistles of the King James Bible but goes back earlier, to Tyndale – his rendering of a Greek phrase, aischron kerdos, that might otherwise have been Englished as "dishonorable gain," as the Chambers 21st Century Dictionary has it, or "shameful profit," as other sources suggest.

And then there's "a close shave." In real life, a literal close shave – I'm talking razor blades, shaving foam, etc., here – is a good thing. But at the level of metaphor, a close shave is a near miss, an almost-catastrophe, as in a recent Fox News headline: "Asteroid to give Earth a close shave Monday."

At one level, haircut makes a great euphemism. For those not wrestling with some kind of identity crisis, it's a word rooted in ordinary life: "Hon, I'm off to the hardware store, and if Joe isn't too busy, I'll get a haircut."

Who's afraid of Joe the barber? And so a financial analyst who would prefer to play down the risk of global economic crisis may acknowledge, yes, some investors may take a "haircut." That's scary?

But there are deeper forces at work here, too. Hair, including facial hair, often reflects forces of nature and desires for personal autonomy, on the one hand, and the power of parents, school boards, commanding officers, and other current or prospective employers, on the other. Think Samson.

When I was in charge of the Monitor's opinion pages, I often told my editing team that most pieces they worked on would benefit from a trim of about 10 percent. I might have actually used the word "haircut." The effort to trim to a given length will help an editor spot wordiness that may otherwise remain invisible.

But the financial "haircuts" being mentioned for investors in Greece – which may yet chuck the euro and go back to the drachma – are far more than 10 percent trims.

Whether 70 percent loan write-offs are justified in terms of global macroeconomics is beyond my ken. But I do know that a 70 percent "trim" is not just "a haircut." It's a Yul Brynner shaved head.

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