Three decades of writing about personal finance have taught me to bob and weave with the ever-changing economic times. While most of the core advice I give about saving for the future and sidestepping the pitfalls of debt is evergreen, some other advice needs tweaking as our world — financial and otherwise — evolves. One recent example? I’m a huge proponent of using cash to help teach kids about how money is tangible and finite, but a year into the pandemic, that suggestion now comes with a bit more baggage.
One thing that seems to change as often as the economy? The way we talk about it. Both booms and busts bring us a whole new vocabulary of financial slang to define the times. During the Roaring Twenties, when the economy was firing on all cylinders, we adopted the word fat cats. Conversely, during the Great Recession, we coined a name for people who took advantage of a financial industry in need of regulation: banksters. It’s no wonder that my parents, Shirley and Harold Kobliner, were able to collect hundreds of money idioms for their book, So to Speak: 11,000 Expressions That’ll Knock Your Socks Off.
According to Michael Adams, professor of linguistics at Indiana University at Bloomington and author of Slang: The People’s Poetry, “We’re making slang all the time.” But our idioms take on special significance during lean economic times. “When you enter a crisis situation, and everyone’s affected, it’s natural to want to deflect that somehow,” Dr. Adams said. “Language can do that by bringing high-flown economics down to the more human level. An ‘economic downturn’ can now be reduced to a ‘slump.’”
On the other hand, booms seem chockablock with new expressions for success because the history of language tends to reward the winners. “That’s a problem with slang altogether,” Dr. Adams said.
“What one notices in the news will favor the privileged. Those who are media-disenfranchised — they’re still making language, but you might not hear about it.”
Still, taking a close look at expressions from the last century of booms and busts can tell us a lot about what we as a nation were going through when we coined them, and how we dealt with it.
The Roaring Twenties and Black Friday
Wall Street seemed so unstoppable in the 1920s that investors called it a bull market for the first time. While F. Scott Fitzgerald was dreaming up a diamond as big as the Ritz, everything was the bee’s knees for those fat cats who were flush with clams. One of the most memorable Jazz Age expressions comes from notorious actress and speakeasy owner Texas Guinan. She popularized the idiom butter-and-egg men, a term for the rich and gullible patrons she welcomed to her infamous 300 Club in Manhattan.
After the inevitable crash came on Black Friday (oh, how that expression has changed), fresh language arose to suit the scarcity. The Great Depression — when my mom and dad came of age — brought food insecurity. It’s no wonder, then, that contemporaries compared money to food, with terms like bacon and cabbage regularly used as slang for cash. You could create a whole produce section from all our expressions for currency. Think of the leafy vegetables alone — from lettuce to kale to scharole (aka escarole).
Then there’s the curious case of mazuma. This Yiddish word for cash entered the American lexicon on a wave of European immigration that coincided with the financial Panic of 1893 and subsequent four-year-long depression. “When you’re in an economic crisis, people look for scapegoats,” Dr. Adams said. In the mouths of U.S. nationalists of the time, mazuma became an insult that included anti-Semitic connotations about money.
Postwar suburbia and the Go-Go ’80s
That same fear of “the other” was part of the (less-than-equitable) suburban boom after World War II — when the expression white flight entered our vocabulary. Under the GI Bill, veterans could buy new homes in the suburbs with mortgages insured by the Federal Housing Administration. Homeownership soared from 40% in 1940 to 60% by 1960. Yet, by the late 1950s, only 2% of the postwar houses built with FHA support were home to African Americans or other minorities. It’s no coincidence that the term redlining — which came to mean the illegal practice of preventing people of color from getting mortgages — also returned home from the front. (The expression initially referred to the red line drawn through a rule-breaking soldier’s name, depriving them of pay.)
The Baby Boomers born in this postwar expansion came of age during yet another, well, boom. Under President Reagan’s watch, the economy started off shaky, and many dined on government cheese (a term aged to perfection since World War I) before the decade exploded into the so-called Go-Go ’80s. Pop culture was fixated on wealth and glamour, as the Me Generation embraced the greed is good ethos, while others disparaged the rise of yuppies. (And still others worried that they were becoming shopaholics.) Corporate raiders like Carl Icahn launched hostile takeovers — when they weren’t asking adjacent fellow limo passengers to pass the Grey Poupon. Cash was king, and you could be rolling in it if you only understood the art of the deal.
The recession that followed in 1990 gifted us the phrase jobless recovery and put President George H.W. Bush out of a job. (Sadly, his warning about Reagan’s voodoo economics went unheeded a decade previous.) Bill Clinton’s advisor James Carville seized on Bush’s inability to manage the recession during Clinton’s 1992 run for the White House, coining the now-evergreen phrase It’s the economy, stupid.
Irrational exuberance and the 2000s
Fast forward to the housing market collapse and Great Recession. “Crisis drives the creation of language,” said Dr. Adams, so it’s no surprise that the expressions that entered the language reflected our anxieties about real estate. Struggling house-poor homeowners were going underwater after being mortgaged up to their eyeballs. Want some examples of the irrational exuberance (a classic Alan Greenspan euphemism) that ultimately popped the housing bubble (a word that got its first financial spin back in the 18th century)? Remember all those flippers buying and selling quickly renovated McMansions (a retro 80’s term) and the swarms of predatory lenders offering free money that was, of course, anything but free.
Then came the long recovery when tech bros and their startups helped create a new, sometimes lucrative, but always fragile gig economy. Unemployment fell steadily from 2010, eventually reaching what many praised as full employment or what many others called underemployment — two terms often called back into service during times of expansion.
WFH in 2020 and beyond
So many financial turns of phrase have already come out of the economic troubles caused by the pandemic. Much of the slang has captured the shifting employment landscape, giving rise to a batch of new expressions about the changing meaning of work. More than a year in, those who are fortunate enough to WFH are comfortably zooming (now used generically) with their quaranteams — when they aren’t panic shopping online, that is. And while the unchanging scenery leads to Blursday (the status of not knowing what day of the week it is), people are less afraid to indulge in that quarantini when five o’clock rolls around.
As the vaccine rollout delivers a welcome dose of hope (and plenty of selfies), language lovers like me will be watching to see how we translate our optimism into new expressions . One thing is for sure: We’re going to need them as we move into uncharted financial waters. “My shorthand for slang is it’s language with attitude,” Dr. Adams said. “It’s people’s need to express an attitude that the language can’t express as it is.”