Fifteen years after the Global Financial Crisis: Recessions and Business Cycles in the History of Economic Thought

‘Aduersite, tribulacion, worldlye depression’ [sic]: A philological history of economic crisis

Walker Dominic, University of Cambridge

If ‘panics produce texts’ (Fabian 1989), the 2008 Global Financial Crisis drew attention to the rich, everchanging figurative vocabulary available to describe parlous economic conditions (Besomi 2019). Yet the names that have attached themselves to discrete negative economic events - ‘depressions’ (1793), ‘crashes’ (1817), ‘panics’ (1819), ‘recessions’ (1847), ‘crises’ (1848), ‘collapses’ (1856), ‘downturns’ (1858), ‘slumps’ (1888) - are in fact strikingly limited in number (Google Ngram 2023). This paper addresses the significance for public understanding of the derivations and connotations of the first-choice vocabulary of economic crisis. Using Cambridge Concept Lab’s ‘Shared Lexis’ tool, it will consider the following: 1) How certain names and phrases came to stick (and others did not); 2) Where they came from and why they were adopted for economic purposes; 3) How their meanings have changed over time in relation to their use in other contexts; and 4) What effect their extra-economic use may have had on common conceptions of economic crises. The paper takes as a starting point the rise and fall of the term ‘depression’. In the long history of economic mishaps, ‘depressions’ (1793) came first. A word literally meaning the apogee of a celestial body (c. 1400), a ‘depression’ came to signify any ill-starred deterioration in a person’s fortunes (1531), long before taking on its superficially “literal” sense of an impression or declivity in the objective world (1665). It was re-subjectivized at almost exactly same time, indicating a malaise of the spirits (1668), a Cartesian split that neatly mirrors the ontological concerns of Enlightenment philosophers. More than a century later, physicians thought to apply the word to enervations of the body (1803) - coetaneous with its earliest application to the body economic (1793) - though it would be another century before it acquired its specialist sense of a pathology of the mind (1905). It is in this context that the term took off to describe ‘depressions’ in 1910-11, 1920-21 and, of course, 1929-1939; Herbert Hoover insisted on using it instead of ‘panic’ or ‘crisis’ because it ‘sounded less frightening’ (Manchester 1974). ‘The Great Depression’ was a coinage invoking ‘The Great War’ (Robbins 1934), but it only gained traction after the latter was displaced by ‘World War I’ (Google Ngram 2023) - a slow but successful transfiguration of Hoover’s psychologizing trivialization into a litotes, albeit one that has now emphatically lost its ironic sense. The use of ‘depression’ to describe economic events dramatically declines thereafter, replaced by ‘crises’, ‘recessions’, and ‘downturns’ (Google Ngram 2023), all terms with their own rich philological histories. The word ‘Great’ returns with ‘The Great Recession’ of 2007-2009, another unrepeatable proper name, begging the question: what name will be given to the next major economic crisis - and why?

Area: Young Scholar Seminar

Keywords: Crisis, depression, great depression, philology, genealogy, lexis,