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What’s in a Name?

Words shape the way we see the world around us.  We are a social animal that relies on discussion and interpretation to understand what we see, figuring things out in a kind of committee.  Our thoughts are often in language, a Jungian dialogue between our outer and inner selves. There is a rich meaning beyond the simple names that make up our lives like “house” or “car” or “spaghettios”.  When events overtake us we need words that describe them such as “Depression” – the alternative is anxiety. Yet choosing the right word with the right color is tricky.

This isn’t totally rational, of course.  As a Taoist, I find myself saying in inappropriate places the opening of the Tao Te Ching:

Tao ke tao, feichang tao;
Ming ke ming, feichang ming.

The way that is known is not the true way,
The name that it is known by is not its true name.

In other words, words aren’t as important in the grand scheme of things as we’d like to think.  That is definitely true over the spiritual long haul, but in the short run we are comforted by naming things.  It’s one of the first things Adam did when he was granted “dominion” over Eden – and it all went downhill from there.

We might see on the news that Scientists, ideally in white lab coats, have named a disorder or disease.  “The carefree clubbing and partying seen among today’s youth is how they release nervous tension that clouds their future. It’s being referred to as Audenism, for the Age of Anxiety that we now live in.”  I can wish the names were that literate, can’t I?  What’s important is that the process of naming makes it sound as though it’s a phenom, a thing in and of itself.  We can love the parties or hate the music or warn of the dangers of whatever the latest fad drug is, but what matters is that it has a label.  We can describe it and we can react to it.

These names aren’t always great.  The name “9/11” has a rich meaning beyond a few numbers and a slash, and we just haven’t come up with a better handle.  It stuck.  That particular name had the advantage of being very new, so it could be filled with the shock and horror we needed it to have.  Very new events require very new words.  The need for that term, right away, left little time to come up with something better.  It’ll have to do, and does nicely because it has a social context that gives it a rich meaning.

Right now, I tell people we are in a “Depression”.  I tell them this because I know that until we get into our heads what we have, we’re not gonna be able to do anything about it.  The problem, of course, is that “Depression” is a word that already has its own meaning apart from our current problem.  The dictionary definition is not the issue here, since there are many very different literal definitions; I use the word to describe a dramatic stoppage in the credit and money system, which is to say a particular kind of economic downturn.  The real problem for most people are the images of breadlines and just a few corny old tunes in their heads like, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”  Dictionary definitions have nothing on a solid image when it comes to shaping the language; in modern English, Merriam-Webster responds to the usage and not the other way ‘round.

But there is another definition of “Depression”.  Nikolai Kondratiev, working in the Soviet Union in 1925, proposed that economic cycles take the form of very long waves running 50-54 years.  He was proposing new economic theories to help run a modern Soviet state, but this work suggested capitalism would always recover.  Kondratiev (sometimes spelled Kondratieff) was executed in 1938 as a reactionary in the Great Purges.

This definition of “Depression” places it in a context of history and the natural cycles of human activity.  While it’s been 75 years since the last one, it’s worth noting that the previous Depression was in 1893, meaning two cycles in 118 years or 59 years each.  Throw in the Panic of 1857 as the last one, and we had 3 cycles in 151 years or about 50 years each.  Kondratiev was just about right, on average, and time didn’t stop for the fabulous new modern economy.  What’s happening now is simply part of the cycle of things.

None of this erases the image most people have when we hear the word “Depression”, however.  There was a time when I was furious that President Obama could make a speech on the economy without using the word “Depression”; I wanted him to clarify what is going on and force people to understand it.  Instead, Obama steered a careful course between panic and complacency, stressing the urgency without using the word that would make everyone freak out.  He was right, and I was clearly wrong – we’re not ready for the scary word “Depression”, at least not from our leader.  But we still have to rely on people like me to sneak it in to our dialogue, both inside and outside our heads.

Unfortunately, that word represents something that isn’t exactly right in most people’s heads.  In the long run, the Tao Te Ching is right – the words are only a shorthand for what the thing is itself, and the meanings we give words are often just wrong enough to make them misleading.  Yet in our daily lives, they mean a lot to us because the describe our world.

We are in a Depression, but that doesn’t mean it will be as bad as the last one.  Accepting that word is not a death sentence – it has the potential to be very liberating.

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17 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. I want your audience, dude. BTW, do you know a source for the Hubei Small Seal texts of LT? Friend of mine going to Hong Kong willing to shop for me, we can’t find anything online.

  2. Sorry, I have no leads on where to purchase Taoiana – I’ve never been able to accumulate such things in my life. I like to say that the sage knows that the Way lies in his head and his being, but the reality is I’m just really cheap.

    As for my audience, well, they’re awfully shy. I know there are a lot more people reading my stuff than the comments suggest, but I can’t get comments out of ‘em. This is a big hint, y’all!

    The first rule of social marketing is that everyone lies about their traffic, so I won’t say a word – it’ll look like lying. Just check the Alexa rankings, which are far from perfect but make a good first guess.

    I should probably say something more controversial just to get some comments – in case my slam of social marketing doesn’t do it.

  3. You know this is one of my favorite topics because we’ve discussed it more than once. Perhaps this post also explains why I cannot see becoming a “Taoist” because I believe “ming ke ming, feichang ming” is fundamentally flawed.

    According to George Lakoff, people process thoughts through “frames” or as I like to call them “myths.” Part of the way we express these concepts is to use shorthand in the way we communicate them. There are many meanings within those fragile _words_ and the names we choose are very important in shaping how we think. For example: “tax relief” implies taxes are a burden rather than an investment. Those two words aren’t just words, they carry meaning and ideology.

    While I agree that dictionaries do not supply this richness of meaning, I believe words like “depression” (notice I used lower-case) can evoke fear, darkness and hopelessness. Now, our common culture has assigned new meanings to the “clinical” term depression since the era in history we call the “Great Depression.” That certainly doesn’t help matters.

    The other important point is that people behave differently if they perceive a depression versus a recession. The R-word is not great but it implies recovery in a timeframe most of us can withstand. It is a visual image (receding…) that one can almost see the curve going down and then eventually going back up.

    Maybe it is a problem that until we get beyond our usual definitions of economic disasters we still do not have appropriate language to talk about the magnitude of the issues we will face in the upcoming decline. That only means we need to frame those issues in a more precise and useful way, perhaps using language that implies both seriousness and urgency, but not words that imply doom and disaster. We are American, after all, with almost a pathological need to hope for better. It’s what continues to draw immigrants to our shores. When that changes, I’ll really worry.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking post.

  4. Psychologists often find themselves reminding lay people that sadness is normal when something bad happens, but depression is pathological, i.e. unhealthy. If a friend or family member dies it is perfectly normal to be sad, perhaps very sad for some time. If however, one only wants to sleep, is apathetic about food, work and life itself without a real-world precursor, we call that depression.

    I’ve wondered about our current economic circumstance. Is it more akin to a protracted sadness than a “depression” (in the psychological sense)? There were certainly systemic, extreme problems in our economy: overvalued homes, a steadily increasing disparity in wealth, a poor savings rate. We lack a Diagnostic & Statistical Manual type definition of economic depression. We have one for recession (two consecutive quarters of declining economic growth). Yes, we could say things feel more “depression” like, but there were real-world precursors. Our psychological metaphor fails us here.

    Joblessness and decreasing stock values have happened many times in non-economic depressions. Most of the Reagan administration had higher unemployment than we have now. Paul Volker almost single-handedly tied up cash and credit in the early eighties, creating some odd parallels to today – high unemployment, low construction activity, nearly frozen lending. It was a long, deep recession. President Reagan brought us some pathological policies. The misery index was high, but looking back, the economic term “depression” just doesn’t fit, let’s not mix our metaphors about today’s troubles either.

  5. Erik, This is about as far out as you will have me writing as I read and reread your essay on (economic) anxiety and depression.
    In the problem of miraculous feeding Robert Grant states people believe or want to believe in a time of abundance. The Romans had their “golden age” and the Isles of the Blessed/blessed fields but this was only accessible to heros and super heros . In Aeneid 6, Aeneas visits the Elysian Fields and learns the glorious future of Rome but virgil has him leave this world through the gate of False Dreams. “No dyes will be needed because rams will change the color of their fleece to purple or yellow or red. Loaves of baked bread grow on the top of wheat stalks. In these times each house has a spring, each block a dairy and each neighborhood a tavern or a winery.” Actually sounds a lot like modern life to me.
    In ancient times the people wanted to escape from their strife. So the prophet john exiled in Patmos writes about a river and tree of life which bears 12 harvests per year. “Wherever the river goes every living creature will be, there will be very many fish…And on the banks there will grow all kinds of trees for food . Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fall ” Thats not a bad life either.

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  7. I’ve been slow to respond – sorry. I’ll just hit the highlights.

    Cristy: Since I make my living in words, it does seem very strange to say that words are not that important. For me, it’s the humility of understanding the limitations of words that is important. Yet there is great power in engaging people all the same, at least in a social sense. The writer in me says you are right, the Engineer in my says that we tiny walking upright chimps aren’t as important as we think. :-) Allow me that much humility – the usual arrogance you have to take in larger doses than most people.

    Bruce: The choice of word “Depression” is a strange on both emotionally and economically. But both do describe a long, protracted feeling that everything sucks. Are we in a period of just being down on ourselves? Well, naturally, I don’t think so. I use “Depression” to describe a type of Recession more than a depth or length, and we are in the type of downturn that starts with a banking/credit meltdown and gradually oozes through everything. I also think we’re way over-due on the traditional scale, but who’s to say that those cycles hold in an industrial era? I think the high unemployment, at least by traditional measures, is well on its way – 2M people will lose their jobs this quarter at the current rate. It’s what comes with this particular type of contraction, at least usually. I expect it to get a lot worse unless the government really does have its shit together. I hope that makes at least some sense.

    Dan – wow … that is a great topic to spend some time on, but I seriously have to do more reading first! I was thinking of explaining Kondratiev via the concept of Jubilee – 7 cycles of 7, followed by a Jubilee Year of great abundance. The middle seven year is the bad one. I stopped myself from doing it because, in all honesty, I know the Biblical references but I know there’s a LOT more in other cultures. You mentioned Aeneid, and I just don’t know it. Let me get to the reading! :-)

    Thanks, everyone, great stuff. You’re making me think, and I love that!

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