The language of money

In a recent New Yorker article, John Lanchester talks about the language used in the world of finance.

He gives the bad and the good reasons for having a language for experts. Sometimes, he acknowledges, such terminology is used to exclude and baffle. More often, experts need such terms went talking to each other, but forget that the meanings they understand so well are obscure to others.

It is potent and efficient, but also exclusive and excluding. Explanations are hard to hold on to, because an entire series of them may be compressed into a phrase, or even a single word.

He goes on to talk about reversification, where a term has, over time, drifted far from its original sense;sometimes so far that it now means the complete opposite. I love his examples, and his colourful style of writing.

The images and metaphors keep doing headstands. To “bail out” is to slop water over the side of a boat. That verb has been reversified so that it means an injection of public money into a failing institution; taking something dangerous out has turned into putting something vital in. “Credit” has been reversified: it means debt. “Inflation” means money being worth less. “Synergy” means sacking people. “Risk” means precise mathematical assessment of probability. “Noncore assets” means garbage.

It’s a great article for anyone interested in financial language or the way that language changes. And expect the Nilometer to pop up in my conversations over coming weeks.

(A tip of the hat to Cheryl Stephens, whose comment on ‘incomprehension is a form of consent’ first pointed us to this article.)

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