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'Fiscal cliff' for Word of the Year!

November 9, 2012: 1:58 PM ET

Can 'fiscal cliff' beat out 'gangnam style' for Word of the Year?

As we were researching the origin of the term "fiscal cliff," CNNMoney reached out to linguistics expert Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com and language columnist for The Boston Globe.

We had no idea, but "fiscal cliff" may be considered for the Word of the Year in 2012. That is, if it can beat out "Gangnam Style" and "Frankenstorm"!

Dear Annalyn,

Thanks for getting in touch. I've been keeping tabs on "fiscal cliff" in my capacity as Chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. During the society's annual meeting in the first week of January, we'll be selecting our Word of the Year for 2012, and I expect "fiscal cliff" will be in the running -- if it can hold off such contenders as "gangnam style," "Frankenstorm," "double down," and "doxing." (Yes, some of these are phrases and not single words, but WOTY candidates can be anything that could appear as a dictionary entry, including compounds, phrases, and prefixes.)

The 1957 New York Times article is the earliest appearance I've found in the newspaper databases, though it's a bit different since it's talking about homeowners rather than budget-makers being pushed off the fiscal cliff. It's not until the early 1980s that "fiscal cliff" began to become popular as a metaphor for the precarious condition of city, state, and federal budgets. Here are some examples going back to 1975:

"Who hasn't looked with horror at New York City's financial plight? The nation's biggest, richest city is about to go over the fiscal cliff if the state and federal governments don't lend a helping hand." -- Mike Kingston op/ed, Dallas Morning News, June 16, 1975
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"Analysis has schools heading off fiscal cliff again." -- headline, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Jan. 6, 1981
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"Should the economy worsen or Congress approve all the new budget cuts proposed for the next year, a number of states are sure to go over the fiscal cliff." -- masthead editorial, Chicago Tribune, Aug. 1, 1982
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"Remember the battle of the California budget? Remember the state was supposedly going over a fiscal cliff because of Proposition 13 and the recession?" -- masthead editorial, San Diego Union, Oct. 3, 1983
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"The process allows the city [Portland] to alter course well before reaching the edge of a fiscal cliff." -- Larry Hilderbrand op/ed, The Oregonian, Nov. 25, 1985

I also found a much earlier example of a similar metaphor, the "fiscal precipice":

"The free silver shriekers are striving to tumble the United States over the same fiscal precipice." -- unsigned editorial, Chicago Tribune, Sep. 9, 1893

The "cliff" metaphor is evocative in that it calls to mind cinematic "cliff-hangers" going back to the silent movie era. And the image of "driving off the (fiscal) cliff" is now a potent one thanks to the climactic scene in "Thelma and Louise."

Regards,
Ben Zimmer

Addendum: Long before "Thelma and Louise," however, Hollywood created another lasting image of suicidal cliff-jumping. The 1958 Disney documentary "White Wilderness" showed hordes of lemmings jumping off a cliff in Alberta, Canada, helping to popularize the misconception that lemmings commit mass suicide when migrating. But the film-makers staged the whole thing, since they weren't shooting an actual lemming migration.

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