Recession Dictionary: Do You Speak Recession-ese?

Staycation? Shovel-Ready? Zombie Bank? What are these strange new phrases?

ByALICE GOMSTYN <br/> ABC NEWS Business Unit
March 6, 2009, 7:17 PM

March 9, 2009&#151; -- As housing prices plummet, stocks plunge and Americans grow poorer, there's at least one segment of life that's growing richer: the English language.

From "recessionista" to "shovel ready," new words and phrases are entering the American vernacular while older ones -- like "bailout" and "zombie banks" -- are reasserting themselves in the public consciousness.

Know of a recession-inspired word or phrase? Tell ABC News.

Settling on catchwords, experts say, may prove comforting to people as they struggle to come to terms with today's economic straits.

"Maybe when you can wrap everything up into one catchword, you're controlling the situation for yourself," said Nancy Friedman, the head of Wordworking, a California company that creates names and taglines for companies and products. "That's what we do with language: We attempt to define and control and make sense of the world."

In particular, clever words such as "staycation" help people approach grim realities -- like not being able to afford a vacation -- through humor, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

"When people start becoming playful with language, that's a coping mechanism," she said.

Friedman said that today's technology and communications tools, including social networking Web sites and micro-blogging sites like Twitter, are helping new words spread rapidly.

"There's just a lot more opportunity for what used to spread only by word of mouth -- which is pretty slow and inefficient -- to get broadcast very quickly and to make it into conversation," she said.

But whether new recession buzzwords will last or go the way of the Pet Rock remains to be seen. While Merriam-Webster's added three new recession-inspired words to its online dictionary recently, editors there and at rival American Heritage Dictionary agree that it will take years before such words make into print dictionaries -- if they ever do.

Editors said that at a minimum, a new word must be used commonly for about five years before it meets dictionary standards.

"We want to have some sense that people are going to have likely need to look them up -- that they're not just going to be looked at as novelties or something, or a flash in the pan," said Joe Pickett, executive director of the American Heritage Dictionary.

On the next page, has compiled a list of some of the most popular recession-era terms, including new words and phrases, as well as those that have become ubiquitous since the start of the economic crisis. Do you know of a word that you think should be added to our list? Let us know by clicking here. Your suggestion could be featured in a future story.

The Recession Dictionary

Below, a list of words inspired by or given new life through this recession:

bailout: noun A rescue from financial distress. --courtesy Merriam-Webster.

Merriam-Webster named "bailout" its "Word of the Year" last year after it was used to describe the multibillion dollar investments the government made in the nation's ailing banks and automakers. The word, which was also used to describe the government's aid to Chrysler in the late 1970s, received "the highest intensity of lookups on Merriam-Webster Online over the shortest period of time," the company said.

decremental: adjective The act or process of decreasing or becoming gradually less; the amount lost by gradual diminution or waste. --courtesy The American Heritage Dictionary.

The opposite of incremental, decremental has been appearing more frequently in reports by analysts reviewing the financial health of various companies, used in such phrases as "decremental margins" and "decremental sales."

It's "an ugly word," Deutsche Bank analyst Peter Reilly told The Wall Street Journal.

furlough: noun 1. A leave of absence granted to a governmental or institutional employee (as a soldier, civil servant or missionary); a document authorizing such a leave of absence.

2. A leave of absence granted by an employer to an employee; especially: a leave of absence granted at the employee's request; a temporary lack of employment due to economic conditions. --courtesy Merriam-Webster

Furloughs have grown more common these days as some companies seek to cut costs by giving employees unpaid time off. In January, Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper publisher, announced it would furlough most of its 31,000 employees for one week.

From 'Great Recession' to 'Mini-Madoff'

Great Recession: noun The current recession, which began in December 2007.

The length and severity of the current recession has led some in the media to dub it the "Great Recession," a term that echoes the Great Depression of the 1930s.

"It won't produce as steep a fall in American output as the Depression did, but it may prove to be as prolonged," Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson wrote in an op-ed article last week in The New York Times.

layoff: noun 1. The act of suspending or dismissing an employee, as for lack of work or because of corporate reorganization. 2. A period of temporary inactivity or rest.

The word layoff once was used synonymously with the word furlough -- meaning a temporary dismissal for work -- but, unfortunately for many workers, layoffs announced during this recession tend to be of the permanent variety.

mini-Madoff: noun A scammer who perpetuates a pyramid scheme similar to but smaller than that allegedly run by Bernard L. Madoff, a once-respected Wall Street player who is accused of bilking investors out of tens of billions of dollars.

As the economy unravels, more and more alleged pyramid schemes -- through which scammers pay early investors with cash from new investors -- are coming to light. The alleged cases of Robert Allen Stanford in Texas and Arthur G. Nadel in Florida have, after Madoff, become among the most notable.

recessionista: noun One who remains stylish during times of economic hardship; a woman who updates her wardrobe in a frugal manner. --courtesy Merriam-Webster

Recessionista is what linguists call a portmanteau -- a word formed from parts of two or more separate words. In this case, recessionista is a play on the words "fashionista" and, of course, recession.

The term has become ubiquitous in news media reports and blogs, particularly those focusing on fashion on a budget.

The recessionista "is at the mall finding designer threads ... at discount prices," wrote blogger Derek Blasberg. "That's because recessionistas aren't letting a little thing like falling stock prices and rising gas bills get in the way of their wardrobe."

Staycation, Shovels and Zombies

shovel ready: noun A construction project that can begin immediately after it receives funding.

The term "shovel ready" blasted into the public vernacular as proponents of the Obama administration's economic stimulus plan touted the public works projects that could begin -- and create jobs -- immediately if they received funding through the package. Obama called the plan, which received Congressional approval last month, "the largest new investment in national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s."

The term now is also being used colloquially by some to describe any project that is on the verge of beginning.

staycation: noun A holiday spent at home, especially due to straitened financial circumstances. --courtesy Collins Dictionaries.

As more people are finding their finances strained by job losses, the sinking stock market and withering house prices, they're tightening their belts by skipping pricey vacations. Instead, they're staying at, or close to, home with trips to local attractions like amusement parks.

The trend has spread to college students, with some now contemplating taking "spring break staycations."

zombie bank: noun A bank that has a negative net worth but continues to operate because of depositor's insurance or other governmental intervention. --courtesy Merriam-Webster.

The term may provoke images of horror movies and "the undead," but zombie bank refers not to monsters but financial institutions that cannot survive without aid from another party, often the government. Ressurected in recent months, "zombie bank" was also used to describe banks during the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and during the Japanese financial crisis of the 1990s.

Do you know of a word that you think should be added to our list? Let us know by clicking here. Your suggestion could be featured in a future story.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events