The language of economics from the Mercantilist period to the present
As seen above, during Antiquity and the Middle Ages the economy was rarely treated as a subject in itself. Since the middle of the 16th century, however, an ever- increasing number of publications on economic matters have appeared, written mostly by merchants, officials or politicians attempting to influence official decisions in their favour. In France alone, Perrot (1985: 23) counted almost 3,000 relevant publications before the French Revolution. In accordance with their purpose, these publications were characterized by an abundant use of persuasive and emotive stylistic devices.
Another, obviously related characteristic of these writings is the abundant use of metaphors. It appears that many metaphorical fields of modern economic discourse were already present in the “mercantilist” literature. The economy was commonly depicted using the old image of the body politic: accordingly, economic problems were referred to as diseases, and politicians in charge of economic policy as doctors.
The presently opaque term crisis goes back to this kind of figurative discourse (it originally designated a crucial moment in the development of a disease), and so does the metaphor of money as the “lifeblood” of the economy, which started “circulating” in European languages after Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood in 1628.
As early as in the 16th century, the tendency of the money market to return to a state of equilibrium had been explained by Bernardo Davanzati by analogy with the behaviour of water. Indeed, from the second half of the 18th century, the metaphor of “money flows” was to become more and more frequent. Another fundamental metaphor - the economy as a “machine” - can also be found at that time; for example, a French text of 1767 speaks of the “rouage de la machine economique” [cogs of the economic machine]. Later, in the 19th century, the vocabulary of Newtonian mechanics would be consciously exploited by classical economists (“equilibrium”, “market forces”, etc.). War metaphors also go back to the mercantilist literature, especially that of a “trade war”, as does the analogy between the economy as a whole and housekeeping (“political economy”, as opposed to economy in the etymological sense of ‘household (Greek: oikos) management (nomos)’). Such metaphors circulated rapidly, which is why the metaphorical fields concerned with the economy are so strikingly similar across European languages. In the 17th century, English Mercantilists exerted the most decisive influence, contributing, for example, the metaphor of the “balance of trade”, while in the 18th century, France took the lead. Italian, Spanish and German, at that time, remained purely passive, importing economic metaphors but not creating any of their own.
A new chapter in the history of economic language was opened with the advent of Physiocracy in the second half of the 18th century. The Physiocrats’ ambition was to provide a logically coherent and empirically adequate systematization of knowledge about the economy (cf. Steiner 1998: 70-79). In that endeavour, they also forged a new-fangled terminology including, for example, avances primitives et foncieres [primary agricultural investments], produit net [net product, i.e. value added], classe stdrile [‘sterile class’, i.e., the class of skilled workers] - all of these being terms which sounded extravagant to their contemporaries’ ears. A 1768 review from the Journal economique referred to this type of language as “jargon metaphysique, geometrique, algebrique” [metaphysical, geometrical, algebraic jargon] (Steiner 1998: 75). Due to their pretentious way of writing, the Physiocrats were jokingly dubbed Economistes by their contemporaries, an initially scornful expression which would eventually become the neutral designation for the new profession. Physiocracy itself was short-lived, but its attempt to recast the economy in utterly new conceptual categories and to create a terminology that reflected these categories did leave a lasting legacy.
With the demise of Physiocracy and the subsequent hegemony of classical economics, built on Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), the linguistic centre of gravity in economics shifted again from France to England. However, until the
Second World War, the development of economic terminology continued to be a “polyphonic” process, in which French and, from the second half of the 19th century onwards, German continued to play important roles. In 1884, for example, the Austrian economist Friedrich von Wieser coined the term Grenznutzen, which was then translated into English as marginal utility, into French as utilite marginale, and similarly into the other European languages which had historically played an essentially receptive role (cf. Devenyi 2007 on Hungarian). As in this case, economists generally adopted ordinary, native word-formation techniques when naming new concepts, or resorted to the semantic extension of everyday language vocabulary, such as equilibrium or elasticity. More rarely, they availed themselves of the lexical material and word-formation techniques of the classical languages, as was customary in medicine and other disciplines. A case in point is constituted by oligopoly, oligopsony and related expressions. As shown in Rainer (2015b), oligopoly, which was introduced into modern economic discourse by German scholars in the form Oligopol at the beginning of the 20th century, had been coined as oligopolium ‘sale by a few sellers’ as early as 1516 by Thomas More in his Utopia, on the model of monopolium ‘sale by a single seller’; the French then added duopole ‘duopoly’ in the second half of the 19th century. The second part of these words, which are quite opaque for the ordinary speaker, represents Ancient Greek -polion ‘sale’. In the 1930s, an analogous set of terms for the buyer side was generated on the basis of Ancient Greek opsonia ‘purchase’, yielding monopsony, duopsony, and oligopsony.
From a stylistic point of view, economic literature has witnessed important changes since the 19th century. Probably as a consequence of the academic institutionalization of the discipline, the style of economic publications became more objective during the 19th century and adopted typical features of academic writing such as nominalization, impersonal constructions and the avoidance of overly complex subordinate clauses (Kaehlbrandt 1989). Another important change occurred in the 20th century, viz. a sharp rise in the percentage of mathematical and statistical discourse in economic texts, which increased from 3% to 40% in the American Economic Review between 1940 and 1990 (Beaud and Dostaler 1993:105). In relation to the above, McCloskey (1991:141) notes that “[t]he theoretical articles of the 1920s took the philosopher as their model; the empirical articles took the historian; in English, ‘the scholar’. The implied author of the recent theoretical article is the mathematician, with his theorems and proofs”. At the same time, “[t]he percentage of terms that a non-professional reader could understand has fallen steadily in economic journals since the 1920s” (p. 142).
Rising interest in the economy on the part of specialists and the wider public has also brought along new genres of economic discourse. The first textbooks and scholarly journals appeared as early as in the second half of the 18th century, while the first half of the following one saw the emergence of weekly magazines and dailies specializing in the stock market or more broadly in the economy (on France, cf. Henno 1993). Unfortunately, most of these genres still await the analytic eye of historical linguists (on the economics article, cf. Dudley-Evans and Henderson 1993). Last but not least, we also have to lament the almost complete absence of diachronic discourse-analytic studies that would answer the question of how, over the centuries, economic crises, inflation, unemployment, the ups and downs in the stock market, etc. were talked about (cf. Yeught 2012, for an incipient project in this direction).