Nodes of Meaning: Time to Talk 'Economy'

In everyday language, we often encounter words with multiple and/or ambiguous meanings. Typically, we figure out meaning from context.  Most writers and readers are aware of this way of communicating—and deciphering—meaning, but with today’s 24-hour news cycle and endless stream of information, definitions of overused words become sticky.  It can be difficult to trace back the intended meaning of a word and in the context of a news article, an overused word can muddle reports and ideas.  An example of such a word is ‘economy.’

The literal meaning of ‘economy’ is ‘efficiency’ or ‘thrift’, as in fuel economy or an economy of words, but non-literal uses of the word have become pervasive in day-to-day news. ‘Economy’ is often used to reference a system of relationships connected to our nation's commerce and finances. This meaning is problematic because the particular relationships included in or excluded from this system are rarely clarified. 

For example, when writers refer to the ‘broader economy,’ or the 'real economy,' what should we understand as the 'narrower,' or ‘abstract’ economy?   Or when ‘the economy’ is compared to a car (‘steering the economy,’ 'the economy is gaining traction,' or a 'sputtering economy'), is this the same usage, or a different one, from the aggregate of measurements such as GDP and unemployment rates that we analyze in Economics courses?  Add to this the organic metaphors that pop up nearly as frequently as the car metaphors (the struggling economy; healing the economy; the growing economy) and we have a morass of meanings, from a system of relationships, to the 'general business climate as measured by GDP,’ etc., to the marketplace, to a financial view of society as a whole. 

In the two weeks between March 8 and March 21, the word ‘economy’ or ‘economies’ was used 391 times by the Wall Street Journal. That is far too many uses for a word that has become so ambiguous! What further complicates the issue is how far these meanings have moved from the literal meaning of economy as 'efficiency.' We'll be continuing this informal exploration in the weeks to come.  Stay tuned, and send us your thoughts!


(Tim is a senior and history major at Franklin & Marshall, currently taking electives in Economics and Philosophy at Drew.)

Timothy HukeComment