Bleak, Bleak, Blech

A new economic indicator? There's a favorite word to describe the world today

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The cliché: When Britain's unemployment numbers came out yesterday, the Guardian led with the headline: "Unemployment: bleak, bleak bleak." A word so nice, they said it thrice. But then, everyone else was saying it too. Over and over. "Bleak News on Health Insurance," declared a New York Times editorial. Also in the Times yesterday, Robert Pear and Jennifer Steinhauer's report gets the headline, "Debt Panel Opens With Bleak Economic Picture." "Things Are Looking Pretty Bleak for French Banks," noted The Atlantic Wire's own Uri Friedman.  "Fed chief describes consumers as too bleak," paraphrased The Boston Globe. Gawker's Hamilton Nolan provided us with "A Simple Guide to Your Bleak Financial Future." Thanks, Hamilton!

Where it's from: Taking the long view, Merriam Webster tells us the word made its modern English debut in 1574 and derives from the Middle English word bleke, which means pale. More immediately, Google Trends informs us that use of the word "bleak" last spiked in the fall of 2008. So, did something bad happen to the economy in 2008, or something?

Why it's catching on: Uses of "bleak" leveled off after the 2008 crash before spiking again much more slightly on Sept. 2. A casual glance at The New York Times from that day reveals why: "Wall St. Tumbles After Bleak Jobs Report." Ah, yes, we remember now. It seems the double whammy of a bad jobs report and a bad stock performance has kept "bleak" things in the news ever since then, and the British jobs report has only made bleaker the prospect that it will ever go away.

Why else? There's a lot of bad economic news out there, and, perusing the thesaurus, not a lot of really awesome synonyms for "bleak". "Wall St. Tumbles After Godforsaken Jobs Report" seems a bit histrionic. "Depressing" seems clinical for business news. "Cheerless", "melancholy", "mournful" are all a little personal. Still, we will award 10 points to the first headline writer to use "tenebrous economic news" in a publication. Twenty points for the use of "lugubrious"!

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.