When examining a language, sometimes a word can have a generic meaning as well as a larger conceptual meaning. Since the 2009 recession, one of the best examples of this phenomenon is today’s word – austerity. Coming from the Latin austerus (severe), via the French austérité, the word austerity arrived in the English language in the middle 14th century.
Though it generically is synonymous with words such as harshness, severity or sternness, which can define a person or an object, in the 21st century, we have come to closely identify the word with an economic policy. While the word does maintain it’s meaning when used in an economic sense, it becomes personifying and representative of the means used to achieve a goal of spending less and more wisely. Unfortunately, it is these means, often encompassing overall spending reductions, individual pay reductions, and governmental job losses, that have come to define what austerity means in action.
Considering that austerity policies mean a reduction in public/governmental spending, which is often a significant portion of overall spending, this can lead to an economic drag often sparking other social issues. For example, soon after austerity issues which would force cuts in university student aid were announced in the UK in 2010, university cities across the country were hit with a wave of protests by angry students. More famously, austerity policies in Greece – though they have helped to close the budget gap- have been inextricably linked to an overall unemployment rate of approximately 25% as well as a youth unemployment rate of approximately 50%.
First appearing around 1400 in the Kentish dialect of Middle English, it is written in Remorse (Prick) of Conscience, “the great austerite, that Christ shall show that day to See”. In John Mayer’s Antidote Popery (1625), we can see the word taking on a wider meaning as Mayer writes that, “The Lord not content with inward contrition, would have it outwardly expressed also; such was the austeritie of the Law.” Finally, 6 decades after Mayer, in The Triumph of Our Monarchy, John Northleigh first uses the modern spelling of our word, writing that, “Reducing them to Obedience, because of his austerity and cruel disposition.”
Clearly, austerity has become a very reflexive word – good when referring to personal character, but possibly negative when referring to the modern economic phenomenon. One thing, though, is absolutely certain, austerity when learning and building vocabulary will only lead to problems.