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Last updated at 14:41 BST, Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Credit crunch

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Jim Pettiward explains the origin, meaning and use of the expression 'credit crunch' and some of its colloquial synonyms. Click below to listen:

Credit crunch

'Credit crunch'. If you’ve had your head buried in the sand for a couple of years, you won’t have heard this term. If not, then you will certainly have seen, read and heard an awful lot about the 'credit crunch'. CR-edit CR-unch. It has a nice satisfying ring to it. When you have a phrase or expression in which the first consonant sound of some of the words is the same, it's called 'alliteration'.

You'll often find alliteration in poetry, nursery rhymes or 'tongue twisters' like 'She sells sea shells on the sea shore'. 'Crunch' is a very expressive word, it makes you think of a breakfast cereal, or the sound when you’re trying to park your car and you're a bit heavy on the accelerator. 'Crunch!' - oops! 'Le crunch' was even an advertising slogan in the 1980s designed to sell a variety of French apple, 'le crunch' being the sound you made when biting into it.

But credit crunch, despite its nice friendly sound, has a sinister meaning. Although the term itself is not new (it was coined in the 1960s), it's only since 2007 that it has really taken off to become a defining term for the global economic downturn which began in August of that year. A search in the Guardian newspaper reveals that 'credit crunch' was mentioned just once in January 2007. In December of the same year it was used 255 times, while in October 2008, the word was used an extraordinary 686 times!

You may be wondering what the difference is between this and the more usual word for an economic downturn - 'recession'. Well, apart from the fact that it sounds better, the 'crunch' really means that credit has dried up, there’s no more. For many years, credit was freely available – we were all given the chance to be big spenders, particularly in Britain and the US. ''You want to buy a house but you haven't got any money? No problem. How much do you need?'' It seemed too good to be true… and it was. As banks collapsed, businesses folded and governments frantically bailed out, nobody wanted to lend money anymore. If you needed a loan, whether you were an individual, a small business or even a bank, it was increasingly hard to get it. Result? Bankruptcy, unemployment, less consumer spending – in a word, recession.

The term has now become a kind of catch-all for a variety of economic problems. Newspapers talk of 'credit-crunch Britain', the word becoming a compound adjective. One news story even spoke of the 'credit crunch snip' – in other words, a vasectomy, a medical procedure which many men are apparently opting for in the US as they can’t afford the expense of having more children!

About Jim Pettiward

Jim Pettiward

Jim Pettiward has a BA (hons) in French and Spanish, CTEFLA and Trinity TESOL Diploma. He has taught EFL, EAP, ESP and Business English in Ecuador, Venezuela, Hungary and the UK. He has also worked as an ICT trainer for the British Council and the University of the Arts, London. He is currently teaching English for Academic Purposes in the Department of Humanities, Arts, Languages and Education at London Metropolitan University.

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Series 5

13 talks about new and changing words and expressions by Jim Pettiward