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The ending -nomics

Poor old Thomas Carlyle, permanently and irretrievably burdened with having described economics as “the dismal science”. He was really talking about political economy, at the time a slightly different beast. But whatever one’s view of economics (I failed the only exam I ever took in the subject, so may be considered biased), lexicographically speaking it has been a fruitful term.

These opaque musings were prompted by what journalists have started to call Enronomics, in reference to the accounting practices of the failed US corporation Enron and their implications for the Bush administration. It’s not as popular yet as Enrongate for the same imbroglio, but shows slight signs of fashionableness, having appeared in several US newspapers recently, and having even made it across the Atlantic to a British Sunday newspaper within hours. However, its chances of taking a permanent place in the language seem vanishingly small.

Before we tar journalists too heavily with the brush of knee-jerk word invention for the sake of novelty, in fairness it has to be said that people have been borrowing that ending for at least 150 years. Agronomics, for example, was coined in the 1860s as a term for what is now often called agronomy, and ergonomics was invented about 1950.

The Greek original of economics splits nicely in two to make -nomics, since its source was oikos, house, plus nemein, to manage (so economics literally means “household management”, which really brings it back to earth, or at least to home and hearth).

But its move into the overtly political arena really dates from late 1969, when Nixonomics was invented as an umbrella term for the economic policies of President Richard Milhous Nixon. But the word which settled its popularity — Reaganomics — arrived in the early eighties; it was followed in the early nineties by Clintonomics. In the eighties, Britain briefly had Thatchernomics, though it was never very popular; New Zealand’s former Minister of Finance, Roger Douglas, provoked Rogernomics (a rare case of a politician’s first name rather than family name being borrowed). Other British politicians have had it applied to them in a half-hearted and short-lived way (Majornomics, Haguenomics) and Americans may remember Dolenomics from 1996.

These examples settled the ending firmly into the grab-bags of topical writers. A sign of its acceptance is that it now pops up from time to time attached to words other than politicians’ names. Back in 1996, a report by Kleinwort Benson described the policies of Malaysia as Noddynomics, which greatly displeased that country’s government. Burgernomics has been applied to the global economic policies and impact of certain fast-food firms. Cybernomics has been used for the economic implications of the digital economy. And so on.

So we ought not to be surprised that Enronomics has popped up, though it is unusual in being attached to the name of a corporation.

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Page created 26 Jan 2002