Fiscal Cliff Definition: What is This Wacky New Word and Where Did it Come From?


Once in a while, a word or phrase becomes so meme’d that it ends up winning an award.

The “fiscal cliff” is now in the running. It’s everywhere in the news. So much so that it may be going head to head with Gangam Style for “word of the year,” which is voted on by the American Dialect Society. But where did the term come from and who used it first?

Much of the credit for the fiscal cliff echo chamber currently resounding in our living rooms and on our screens goes to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

“Under current law, on January 2, 2013, there’s going to be a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases,” said Bernanke, in testimony to the House Financial Services Committee on February 29, 2012.

“Fiscal cliff” was subsequently parroted in news stories and has become the term to describe the automatic spending cuts and tax increases that will go into effect if Congress doesn’t come to an alternative agreement. But, that’s really just the end of the story.

Cliffs have long been used in literature and stories to convey a sense of drama. Who can forget Thelma and Louise revving their car engine, getting ready to evade police by going over the cliff and putting it all behind them. But if that sense of suspense forms the emotional appeal behind the “fiscal cliff,” what’s the etymology?

Some linguaphiles are having a field day with it. Boston Globe language columnist Ben Zimmer, who sits on the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, points to a 1957 New York Times article talking about homeowners going over a fiscal cliff as the earliest use of the term in newspaper archives. Subsequent mentions in the 1980s pair "fiscal cliff" with government budget emergencies, for example, an August 1, 1982, Chicago Tribune editorial that reads, “Should the economy worsen or Congress approve all the new budget cuts proposed for the next year, a number of states are sure to go over the fiscal cliff.”

But is Bernanke, or are his advisers, really such history buffs cinephiles? The answer is probably not.

A Reuters article dated February 12, 2012, “’Fiscal cliff’ looms for United States…” reads, “a reckoning will be at hand in late 2012 and early 2013. It is being called the ‘fiscal cliff’ by some on Capitol Hill….” and was published a couple weeks before Bernanke’s February testimony.

CNN reached out to Reuters to see if the latter would take credit for the term but it did not. “While we appreciate the compliment,” Howard Goller, Washington editor of Reuters wrote in an email to CNN, “the term ‘fiscal cliff’ was floating around Capitol Hill for some time before we printed it.”

What’s likely, is that as members on the Hill grew concerned with the stalemate over the automatic spending cuts and tax increases, the communications apparatus went to work and settled on “fiscal cliff,” members started using, Bernanke used it, and suddenly it explodes in the media and becomes codified as short hand for a complex issue.

There you go. From early films that use “cliffhangers” as cinematic devices, to 1957 editorials, into the 1980’s, on to the halls of Capitol Hill, and finally into our living rooms and onto our laptops. The etymology of “fiscal cliff.”