words Economy

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The Independent Online

Kenneth Clarke will no doubt be telling us on Tuesday that the economy is in good shape. He may even, as Chancellors have done before him, speak in terms of the nation's larder, and suchlike homely metaphors - except that this one isn't really a metaphor, merely a reversion to the ancient meaning of economy. The Greek oikos was a house and nemein meant to manage, so an oikonomos was a housekeeper. The OED has a nice quote from Alexander Pope about government ministers who could "exactly compute the accounts of a kingdom" but were "wholly ignorant of their own economy". Fifty years later, people talked about "domestic economy", which he might well have called a tautology.

It wasn't necessarily to do with money. When Hobbes wrote about "the oeconomy [sic] of a Commonwealth" he meant its general administration - No 10's business rather than No 11's, as we might say. Rural economy was land management, not farmers' profit-margins. Nor did it imply frugality: Steele in a 1710 Tatler was writing about someone's "sumptuous economy". But economy on its own, without a the or a his, did mean thrift, even in the 17th century, as it could also do in ancient Greece, good housekeeping being incompatible with waste.

Now, politicians and City journalists have lost sight of the simple meaning in a great mess of different metaphors. The economy is "rolling along nicely" I read somewhere last week. It is a four-wheeled vehicle likely to overheat, needing a touch on the brake, or perhaps the accelerator. Any minute it may take to sea like a racing yacht, and the Chancellor must look to the tiller. I liked it better when it was a donkey, responding to sticks or carrots. A busy word - and a vague one, like some Chancellors' forecasts.