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The steep rise of ‘fiscal cliff’

A familiar feature at this time of year is the series of Word of the Year announcements, with language professionals and pundits choosing the terms they think best characterise the last 12 months. Political and economic words are often chosen, as they recur in news stories of interest or relevance to the general public. For example, subprime and bailout were selected by the American Dialect Society in 2007 and 2008, and last year it was occupy (also my choice).

A contender this year is fiscal cliff – at least in the US, where it has become a popular economic metaphor. It refers to a combination of tax increases and spending cuts predicted to have dire consequences for the wider economy. The phrase has been around for decades, referring to different possible financial disasters, but only recently did it become so prominent.

We’re used to seeing cliff edges in films and cartoons, and we often find figurative cliffhangers in books and TV series that evoke sudden threat, even life-or-death scenarios. In an interview with NPR, Ben Zimmer says these go back to the era of silent serials such as The Perils of Pauline, whose protagonist was left dangling in danger at the end of an episode in order to tempt viewers back for the next instalment.

Fiscal cliff’s sharp rise may suggest its projected shape, but some critics find it an unsuitable metaphor: mainly because the economy would more likely drop gradually than with the irreversible abruptness of falling off a cliff edge. The word invites images like the Washington Post’s “going over the cliff” and “fall over the fiscal cliff” – dramatic events compared to what would happen on a fiscal curve or fiscal hill, which have been proposed as alternatives.

But fiscal cliff is unlikely to be displaced. It comprises several constituent metaphors that our minds integrate into a powerful combination. In his anatomy of fiscal cliff at the Huffington Post, George Lakoff mentions conceptual metaphors such as TheFutureIsAhead, which is how we commonly conceptualise time; along with MoreIsUp, SuccessIsUp, ActivityIsMotion and others, all bundled in the fiscal cliff complex:

Because the conceptual metaphors constituting the fiscal cliff fit together so well and so naturally, it is hard to just jettison it and replace it with an even better integrated metaphor for our economic situation.

When metaphors are as well integrated as fiscal cliff’s, Lakoff says, they are “hard to replace and we may have to live by them, as misleading as they may be”. Comparing economic insecurity to a cliff edge won’t appeal to everyone, but the metaphor’s success is indisputable – and probably owes partly to what Kerry, in her BuzzWord article this week, calls the “striking combination of metaphorical and specialist words”.

Fiscal cliff wouldn’t be my word of the year, even if I were American instead of Irish, but there is more to it than meets the eye.

For more on metaphors, don’t miss Macmillan Dictionary’s metaphorical English page, which has lots of articles and resources on the subject.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • Stan:
    While “fiscal cliff” may very well stay around, I think of it as an over-earnest attention-getter – a meritricious metaphor, used to dumb down a complicated issue. It may be successful, but I don,t like it..

  • Marc: Thanks for your thoughts on this – you’ll have seen and heard the phrase a lot more than I have, on account of where you’re based. It is a bit crude and overegged, though a convenient shorthand. I don’t expect it to sustain its recent level of exposure for very long.

  • I am doing some research now on the conceptual metaphor and – what a coincidence – I spotted “fiscal cliff” as well and now trying to find the day of its origin or any references to its first usage in financial discourse. I would appreciate if you could help me with that. As to the comments above I think this term will exist along with financial crisis – so quite long:) Figurative speech is the only thing they can exercise efficiently.

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