While “fiscal cliff” negotiations may produce high drama for journalists and partisans as well as desperate uncertainty from Main Street to Wall Street, they are an absolute gold mine for wordsmiths.
Linguaphiles have been assiduously tracking the phrase’s origin -- in particular, whether there is some earlier root than Ben S. Bernanke’s use of it in February to describe the scheduled combination of tax increases and spending cuts.
The New Republic recently published an article mistakenly crediting the phrase to the author of a 1989 story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about a special higher-education tax. Other observers have pointed to this passage in a 1975 Dallas Morning News op-ed article by columnist Mike Kingston: “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.”
But the formulation is quite a bit older. Understanding how the metaphor has been used throughout history, as well as examining a few literary antecedents, can shed light on our current mess, and help us appreciate that our situation is not unique.
Ben Zimmer, who writes the language column for the Boston Globe and dug up the Kingston essay, has pointed to a 1957 use of “fiscal cliff,” in a slightly different context, from the New York Times. But what was new in the 1950s was only the addition of the word “fiscal.” The use of the word “cliff,” modified by an adjective, has long been a metaphor for economic distress.
For example, a 1948 article in the magazine America warned of the nation’s growing infatuation with automobiles: “Monthly payments plus high maintenance costs on a car keep many a family on the edge of a financial cliff, so that they cannot afford children, housing, insurance, medical care and other items that would contribute to a really sound home life.”
The Saturday Evening Post, in 1953, had this to say about the early Disney studio: “But ownership had its pitfalls, too, and in the decade 1928-38 they skidded intermittently toward the edge of the financial cliff.”
A 1934 essay in the magazine Forum, discussing the future of the New Deal, said: “Neither will it be necessary for our nation to plunge over the edge of an economic cliff in an orgy of price-cutting, sweatshop-opening, wage-slashing, and market-swamping.”
We can go back further. Zimmer noted an 1893 editorial in the Chicago Tribune: “The free silver shriekers are striving to tumble the United States over the same fiscal precipice.”
Once we follow Zimmer’s invitation to play more freely with the second word of the phrase, a whole landscape of metaphor opens before us. Thus, for example, we find in a 1912 issue of the journal Current Opinion a quote from a Springfield, Massachusetts, newspaper: “It has been found that a government by Socialists in an American city does not necessarily land the community on the brink of a social and economic precipice.”
An 1889 article in the American Review warned the board of an American missionary society not to let the organization “slip blindly too near the edge of a financial precipice.” And a British newspaper commented, all the way back in 1866, that “Bombay still hovers on the brink of the financial precipice.”
In short, we can safely say that the image of finances hanging at the edge of a cliff or precipice or escarpment goes back a long way. We can’t even say that the metaphor has been recently rediscovered.
It has been with us always because problems of finance have been with us always. That we find Bernanke’s February usage the least bit interesting is a sign merely of our loss of interest in our own language.
There is a larger lesson. The metaphor of a cliff, with all of its dangers, is well known to literature, as is its solution. Let’s consider two examples.
The writer Catherine George Ward Mason, in her 1823 novel, “The Cottage on the Cliff,” described the cottage in words that might apply to our current bipartisan budget mess: “I have let it tumble to pieces, inch by inch, this many a long year, for the devil himself could not find a hole to put his nose in, when the weather is stormy.”
The cliff for Ward Mason is a metaphor for life: We perch precariously, things never quite the way we want them to be. When the storm strikes, we are almost never prepared. The difference between her story and our current situation is that when Ward Mason’s hero, Captain Singleton, buys the cottage for his family, he is more interested in getting the house in order than in placing blame for the mess.
Then there is John Milton’s use in “Paradise Lost.” He described the eagles and storks, who “On Cliffs and Cedar tops thir Eyries build.” How do they manage this miracle? “In common, rang’d in figure wedge thir way / Intelligent of seasons, and set forth / Their Aierie Caravan high over Sea’s / Flying, and over Lands with mutual wing.”
The key word is “mutual.” The cliff-dwelling birds of Milton’s tale fly “in common” because they know that cooperation, not competition, is the key to their survival. A cliff may be high and scary, but it can provide a safe and comfortable home as long as those who dwell there are concerned less with victory than with common interest.
Possibly we have traveled too far down the partisan path to imitate Milton’s eagles and storks. Perhaps cooperation on long-term solutions is beyond us. Let’s hope not. Otherwise we can safely predict that half a century hence, when the final faint echoes of our passionate arguments have faded into history, a new generation will face its own financial escarpment.
Perhaps its lexicographers, researching the etymology of their own budgetary precipice, will stumble upon the vertiginous metaphors of the present day, never dreaming that their financial mess is our fault.
(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” and his most recent novel is “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.”)
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