By SIMON WINCHESTER
Published: October 20, 2008 in The New York Times
YOU can usually tell that a period of human disquietude has evolved into something of historical dimensions when the lexicographers become involved. Most events of moment are eventually defined by single words that were once quite unfamiliar — perestroika, arbitrage, Tiananmen, dotcom — but which endless retellings have rendered mundane. And thus it is with the lexical keystone of today, an unlovely two-syllable concatenation employed interchangeably as both adjective and noun: subprime.
Interestingly, the word arbiters at the headquarters of the Oxford English Dictionary have discovered something odd: “subprime” has suffered a surprising and unusually rapid evolution. Until 1991 it meant something eminently desirable and worthy of aspiration.
Lexicon is by its very nature a fugitive affair. Over the centuries the meanings of words slip and slide without cease, and dictionaries have to be constantly revised. The current print edition of the O.E.D., for example, still sports this definition of the unusual word “abbreviator”: “a junior official of the Vatican, whose duties include drawing up the pope’s briefs” — which would clearly, after briefs-as-legal-documents transmuted into briefs-as-boxer-alternatives, benefit from some rewriting.
The dictionary’s New Words Group began looking closely at subprime’s history late this summer, when the bat-wings of the current crisis began fluttering against Oxford’s mullioned windows. Team members discovered that when first applied to financial matters in 1976, “subprime” meant a loan offered below the prime rate and typically was offered only to the most desirable borrowers.
In was not until 1993 that it took on a much less enticing guise, with Business Wire referring to a company that “buys subprime loans made ... to creditworthy buyers unable to qualify for loans from banks.” And an O.E.D. editor was moved to write a new definition: “Of or designating a loan, typically having relatively unfavorable terms, made to a borrower who does not qualify for other loans because of a poor credit history. ”
And this, one imagines, is the meaning that will go down in history. But what prompted the lexical revisionism? The Oxford lexicographers do not pretend to know why, nor, as dictionary-makers, to care. But they do know the change occurred between 1991 and 1993, during a period that can now perhaps be designated the Great Subprime Ambivalence of 1992, during the final years of the elder George Bush’s presidency — a time that students of politics and economy, rather than lexicography, might now care to study in their turn.
Simon Winchester is the author of “The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary.”