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The Word Nerd: Deconstructing austerity, which once meant stormy weather

Austerity — a much despised term. Judging by the manner the word is ejaculated by some people, you’d get the impression ‘austerity’ represents a form of financial waterboarding.

For most people, however, it represents the methods that a government uses to get its financial house in order by
cutting social services, pensions or the public payroll.

Like the words ‘democracy’ and ‘terrorist’ when used in political and economic contexts, the meaning of ‘austerity’ is almost automatically processed in accordance with one’s socio-political beliefs. Naturally, if you’re a resident of a lender country such as Germany, you’re more likely to ascribe a positive sense to the concept than if you’re a denizen of a borrowing debt-ridden country such as Greece. In fact, in Germany, the word austeritat is rarely used; the term usually employed is sparpolitik meaning ‘savings policy.’ German Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed her disdain for the A-word: “I call it balancing the budget. Everyone else uses the term ‘austerity.’ That makes it sound… truly evil.”

Austerity represents one of the biggest political and economic buzzwords, and like many words in these spheres, its meaning often depends on where you position yourself on the political spectrum.

To those on the right, it represents living within one’s means. Austerity measures represent strict policies that are undertaken by a government to help bring expenditures in line with revenues. This can be accomplished by a combination of spending cuts and increases in taxes or fees.

To those on the left, however, austerity often designates a cause of economic hardship by denying social services to the most vulnerable in society. It is much easier for the wealthy to “tighten their belts” rather than for the poor to do so, since it will effectively lead to their suffering.

Although we associate austerity chiefly with economics, this is a relatively new development in the history of the word. The term came into the English language from the French austerité in the early 15th century, but ironically it can be traced back to the Greek austeros, ‘severe.’ Its first meaning was sternness of manner or appearance and severity of judgment, particularly of a law. Before long it took on a religious sense referring to self-denial, moral strictness or rigorous abstinence. By the 17th century the harshness associated with the word was extended to taste, where it came to denote sourness or bitterness, and within a century it also referred to severe weather or bleak, rugged landscapes.

It is only in the 20th century that it acquired its economic sense. The OED states that in this domain it refers to “restraint in public spending; spec. a programme of government measures designed to reduce public spending and
conserve resources, esp. during a time of economic hardship; the conditions resulting from such measures. The term entered common use in 1942, and was used in the context of rationing and other measures introduced by governments in the period of and after the Second World War.”

The first citation for this sense came from economist John Maynard Keynes, who in 1937 wrote in The Times, “The boom,… is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.” In 1942 the Manchester Guardian stated “Stafford Cripps, Chancellor of the Exchequer, declared that the Government intended to treat the present grave situation with all the ‘seriousness and austerity’ it demands” and the same year The Economist wrote “There has been no word about the new government’s attitude towards reconstruction and planning for defence, production, and austerity have inevitably filled the stage.”

By 1945, although the term originated in French, the economic sense of austerité spread to France and by 1947 this meaning also extended to Italy and Germany.

Interestingly, as austerity is often associated nowadays with governments to the right of the political spectrum, between 1945-1951 it became the hallmark of the economic policies of the Labour government of the United Kingdom because it provided a minimum standard of living for the masses to alleviate the deprivations after World War II.

Although the economic sense is the dominant one today, we occasionally see other meanings. An article in the February 18, 2015 National Post talked about a promotional movie made for Benjamin Netanyahu’s Facebook
page that showed the supposed dowdiness of his Jerusalem residence to counter claims about his extravagance. The article said that the movie “painted a picture of domestic austerity bordering on squalor.”

It is perhaps unfortunate that the term originally used to denote restraint during economic downturns is so laden with associations of self-denial and severity today.

Richler’s latest book, Word Play: Arranged & Deranged Wit, is available through Ronsdale Press.

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