Tradequakes, financial storms, and commercial tides: metaphorical characterizations of crises in the 19th century

(in preparation; preliminary version presented at the 2012 meeting of the American Comparative Literature Association, session on “The language of finanial crises”, Providence, Brown University, March-April 2012)


This paper examines the 19th century usage of (non medical) metaphors for describing various phases of commercial and financial crises (it complements a paper on the medical metaphors in JHET 2011). The survey of metaphors is organized not by families (meteorological, marine, mechanical etc.) but by the role they play within the four basic interpretative approaches to crises as compared to the working of the economic system.
In the approach treating crises as disjoint consequences of exogenous or political perturbations, the prevalent metaphors were the destructive effects of natural catastrophes (storms, quakes, ebbing tides), emphasized their surprising and unexpected occurrence, the universality of distress they caused, and the aberrant character of crises. The approach interpreting crises either as the result of the customary fluctuations of trade, either by cumulation in particular circumstances or by amplification due to some institutional constraints, resorted in particular to tides and pendulums, stressing their oscillatory character yet within the tendency to return to equilibrium.
The approach stressing the recurrent nature of crises was by far the richest in the century. Tides and waves represented the recurrence, also introducing some (partial at least) regularity, while periodical comets called for strict regularity and even predictability. Crises were seen as the result of the cumulation of excesses during the prosperous phase, represented by the gathering of impurities in the air eventually generating storms, the accumulation of snow generating avalanches. The role of crises was indeed that of cleaning the atmosphere, weeding out bad businesses, all made necessary by the growing and spreading instability of prosperity (brought by gambling addiction and vortexes eventually leading to explosions, collapsing building with sandy foundations or rotten beams) turning into accelerating disasters, spreading like wildfire, eventually bringing the system back to normal until a new spark would generate other excesses. Finally, the approach interpreting crises as a phase of a complete cycle, described by a circular causation where each phase generates the next, did not much resort to metaphors, apart from illustrative references to waves, alternating seasons and pendulums, while beginning from the early 20th century writers in this tradition, then become dominant, used elaborate analogies not much to represent their fundamental understanding of the subject but as a support of specific mechanisms and models.