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Just push me

The first time you encounter a metaphor in a news story, consider it carefully and critically to make sure it is apt and makes the subject more understandable. In most cases, you will conclude that the metaphor does neither, after which you may delete it.

The second time you encounter that same metaphor, make sure the story is by the same author, and then see if there’s a point to using it again. Consider whether the writer is trying to create a brand name. If so, delete it. If the story is by another writer, get rid of the term on grounds of unoriginality.

Ben Bernanke

Ben S. Bernanke

The third time you encounter the metaphor, delete it and proceed with your editing.

Obviously something has set me off.

The metaphor of the moment is “fiscal cliff.”

On Feb. 29, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, in testimony at a hearing of the House Financial Services Committee, used the metaphor.  “Under current law, on Jan. 1 2013 this will be a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases,” he said.

The New York Times quoted the term toward the bottom of its report. Time, which never met a metaphor it didn’t like, elevated it to the lede.

Logo for Phillip Blanchard blog postsThere’s nothing new about “fiscal cliff.”  The metaphor has been used for years to describe one impending financial calamity or another. But it’s taken on new life since Bernanke adopted it — even though he did not dwell on it.  On the video — starting at 1:07:40 —you’ll hear that the reference was swift and nonchalant.

I’m no lexicographer, so I can’t pinpoint when and by whom the metaphor first was used. Suffice it to say it was quite a while ago, well before the 2013 cliff loomed.

The metaphor has become a cliché, and it’s also quite likely to prove inappropriate.  While Congress does have a decision to make about spending and taxes by year-end, that decision could very well be to delay action until sometime next year.  In other words, the “fiscal cliff” is very much like last summer’s national-debt “crisis” — unlikely to have any serious consequences other than providing another excuse for Web sites to show countdown clocks.

This sort of shorthand is a well-worn tool of the press, especially the business press.  Witness the proliferation of the term “too big to fail,” supposedly a more accessible term for the unfortunate “systemically important financial institution.” The term fails the test because, in the end, nothing is “too big to fail.” Just ask Mikhail Gorbachev.

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Thanks to the Fiscal Times  for adding to the “fiscal cliff” merriment by coming up with the most ridiculous photo illustration of the year, at least in the business category.

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Phillip Blanchard was in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, most recently as a financial copy editor at the Washington Post. Previously he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times and newspapers in upstate New York. He founded Testy Copy Editors, the online forum, in 1992. Follow him on Twitter: @testycopyeditor. Or email Phillip at blanp@testycopyeditors.org.

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