Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Words in the media: Crunch

If you’ve been reading the British press over the last few years, and in particular the coverage of the global financial crisis, there is one phrase that you will have found keeps cropping up: the credit crunch.

The term “credit crunch” relates to the lack of available credit, particularly the reluctance of banks to lend to each other (a practice known as interbank lending). Credit crunch is a suitably dramatic-sounding phrase that works well on TV and in newspaper stories, especially in headlines (where it can be simplified to just crunch when space is limited).

The word crunch lierally means to crush food between the teeth as when you bite into an apple. It can also suggest a sudden, powerful movement, such as the violent, metallic grinding sound produced when a car driver tries to change gear suddenly (known as crunching the gears). There is, I suppose, a cognitive similarity between this and the sudden shift in normal banking practice that caused an important mechanism in the economy to instantly seize up.

A large number of financial English phrases depict money and capital as a liquid (liquidity, currency, cash-flow, cash injection, etc). The image, then, of this liquid suddenly not flowing (as, for example, when we talk about funding drying up, or turning off the tap) or becoming solid (as in freezing someone’s assets) suggests that the financial engine of a business has stalled; there is an interruption to the flow of capital that it needs to keep running. Likewise, the credit crunch is both a metaphor for the sudden malfunction of the banking and finance sectors due to the absence of liquidity; and, of course, it’s also a description of the impact this has had on the wider economy as companies, in particular retailers and manufacturers – and consumers – are suddenly unable to operate because the machinery of financial institutions and markets have ground to a halt.

There are a number of ideas associated with “crunch”. The most common of these is that of eating something crunchy, such as an apple or a slice of toast. In order to crunch something it has to be hard to begin with but is then physically broken down by the action of one’s molars crushing it. Compare this to chewing, which is similar, but which involves a slightly different process. When you chew something, such as chewing gum or nougat you grind it between your back teeth, but instead of destroying or transforming its structure you are simply softening it while it retains its essential integrity. For example, if you chew a piece of meat it’s still a piece of meat when you swallow it. A bolus (the “ball” of food you make with your mouth) of apple or toast on the other hand has lost all its original texture (otherwise you would choke as it went down).

Crunch also suggests the act of biting into something (as in the expression to crunch into an apple), while chew implies that you have already either bitten off a piece or cut up something which is now entirely inside your mouth. (Think of the English expression to bite off more than you can chew.) If you were eating something which is chewy but too large to put in your much all at once (such as a Curlywurly, a popular sweet (confectionery) in Britain circa 1975, which consisted of long plaited strips of toffee dipped in chocolate), you would still have to bite off part of the Curlywurly before you could chew it.)

On the subject of confectionery nostalgia, the Double Decker (does it still exist?) consisted of a crunchy chocolate biscuit layer with a chewy soft nougat layer on top. The whole thing was coated in milk chocolate and the TV advertising that accompanied it (inevitably accounting for more than half of its appeal) featured legendary bearded political satirist and whimsical humorist Willy Rushden insisting that the Double Decker was alternately chewy and crunchy. (I suppose you really have to be British to appreciate this; it’s similar to listening to Italians discussing exactly which sugo (sauce) you need to have with farfalle (bow-tie pasta) in order to get exactly the right taste-texture sensation – the narcissism of small difference writ large?)

Crunchie, a honeycomb bar covered in chocolate, was (and indeed still is) crunchy. It’s classic advertising slogan “Get that Friday feeling” neatly combined the exploited worker’s alienation from his / her labour (you’re only happy when the weekend is nearly here) with the consumer’s ever-present desire for (and belief in) instant gratification (Why wait till Friday to feel happy? Have a chocolate bar now and it’ll cheer you up, even though it’s Monday morning.)

The expression number cruncher, which means someone who works with figures, usually statistics, is a slightly derogatory way of describing a person who only focuses on calculations and quantities, perhaps at the expense of imagination or creativity. (A similar prejudice is demonstrated by calling an accountant or book-keeper a bean counter.)

Crunch can also mean “important” or “critical” as in the phrases crunch time / moment or a crunch vote in Parliament or the US House / Senate (a decisive vote). Perhaps here, the underlying idea is that something is irrevocable and the players are under enormous pressure. I have the image of rocks being smashed together under an intolerable force, violently producing a dramatic result. I seem to remember something from school geography about metamorphic rock (marble?) being created this way (as opposed to igneous or sedimentary rock).

It’s also reminiscent of the car crunchers (or crushers) that were obligatory in every US police or detective show of the 1970s. In a scrapyard (junkyard, US) an outsize Ford or Thunderbird is grabbed by a huge magnet at the end of a chain hanging down from a swing arm. The car dangles in the air, swaying like a condemned criminal dispatched on a gibbet. Finally the arm swings round and the electro-magnet is suddenly cut. The car falls into the demonic jaws of a crusher, where it is pounded and buckled into a compact metallic cube, which the machine spits out onto a conveyor belt. A multi-layered symbol, the car crusher stands variously for:

  • an immediate threat (quite often the driver would still be in the car, at the mercy of the mob boss waiting to give the signal – a raised cigar – to the crane operator)
  • the brutality and callousness of the disposable consumer culture, chewing up and spitting out not only used cars, but also surplus Motown labour and dwindling natural resources
  • a stand-in for the destroyer god in polytheistic religions (such as the Hindu divinity Kali). The feeding arm and the hydraulic jaws suggest a powerful (and hungry) being that must be propitiated, like the Minotaur. This seems to play on our deep-seated fear of becoming someone else’s lunch (and the unintentionally terrifying promise of overbearing Jewish grandparents that “Oy, I could eat you!” which their diminutive descendant may not realise is actually metaphorical)
The car crusher is invariably stopped at the very last moment by the hero (literally) putting a spanner in the works. (A device used in countless Hollywood films, including perhaps most memorably the Coen Brother’s Art Deco critique of American capitalism, The Hudsucker Proxy.) The gears crunch, the grinding jaws are suspended in a quivering, twitching vibrato that lasts just long enough for the potential victim to escape, followed immediately by the resumption of the screeching and growling of metal against metal (although with a slightly different twist in The Hudsucker Proxy – watch the DVD). Just so with the economic recovery, the anticipated resumption of business as normal – the newly-lubricated wheels of industry are starting to turn again. Capitalism may be a bad thing but the effects of a financial system coming to a halting, crunching end (with little sign of a revolution to follow) seem a lot worse. (Perhaps a case of the devil you know…).

On a final alimentary (food) note, the word crunch in Anglo-Saxon FMCG (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods) marketing seems reserved for products made from nuts (including crunchy peanut butter) or for (sweet) biscuits. It is not normally applied to savoury things, such as crisps (patatine), which, however, in Italian are considered “croccante” (crunchy). Crisp in English suggests a certain brittleness of texture, while crunchy implies that something would bear at least several bites – i.e. it would have a certain durability or resistance (like a nut) not present in something as insubstantial as a crisp.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Life in Italy and in the UK: some differences (1) Appearance

I have now been living in Milan for almost two years so I’ve had many opportunties to compare life in Italy with that in the UK. Some of the differences are obvious (orange trams v red buses, for example), while some are more subtle and take a while to appreciate fully, such as the varying attitudes towards authority, public institutions and figures – and, of course, religion – between the two countries.

Living in a foreign country you become an observer of the people you see every day, a sort of amateur social anthropologist, so I suppose most of the differences between living in Britain and living in Italy are simply due to the fact that most people here are Italian. Consequently, it’s impossible to separate living in Italy from the fact of being surrounded by Italians (and, of course, not being Italian yourself).

The most obvious difference between the Italians and the Brits is their relative appearance. This is especially true in Milan, where your appearance counts for a lot (if not quite everything). When I first arrived in Milan I was inevitably struck by the fact that walking down the street in this city is the closest you can come to attending a fashion show. (Let’s face it, it actually is a fashion show). Even after two years I am constantly surprised by the level of attention and thought that some people have obviously put into the act of getting dressed to go out. And I’m not talking about over-the-top clubbers on their way to a Rocky Horror theme night; no, I mean someone who’s gone to the post office and is standing in the queue to withdraw some cash from their savings account, but before leaving the house has transformed themselves into Katherine Hepburn waiting in the lobby of the Cairo Hilton for a telegram from the Aga Khan. After a while it seems – if not quite normal, then at least commonplace – to see ladies of a certain age in fur coats (and matching fur hats) with elaborate candyfloss hair and enough gold to stock a small Bond Street jewellers. Or perhaps it’ll be a willowy, wannabe supermodel in white drainpipe jeans, leopardskin bolero and outsize Aviators (which always remind me of a fly) tottering along the pavement on six-inch heels, dragging the obligatory chihuahua in red PVC trimmed with gold piping – and this is simply someone coming out of a delicatessen clutching a plastic bag full of cheese and ham, on their way their home to have their tea.

Of course Milan is the global capital of fashion – or of the fashion industry, at any rate – and even people from other regions consider the Milanese ultra-stylish. But paying close attention to the way you look and dress is, of course, an essential element in the make-up of all Italians. As a Brit with virtually no interest in my own clothes, other than that they are comfortable and (generally) clean, the Italian obsession with appearance can sometimes feel like a pervasive and slightly indulgent neurosis; a shared hang-up that’s simply got out of hand, to the extent that it would now seem churlish mentioning to someone that in the quarter of an hour they’ve just spent picking lint off their jumper they could have read an Economist article on quantitative easing.

Every culture defines itself by giving greater weight to things that outsiders generally consider trivial or irrelevant. While it’s a cliché, for instance, that the British always talk about the weather and are obsessed with tea, it is nonethless true that a typical English conversation in the UK will include a consideration of the seasonality (or otherwise) of the snow or rain that we’ve been having recently. (And if you don’t mind, I’d much rather you put the milk in first. In fact, it always tastes much better if you make it in a teapot...) It would be odd, then, if only some Italians – the Milanese, say – were image-mad, while appearance was of little or no concern to other Italians; as it is, the brand horses trotting between the boutiques of Milan’s quadrilateral (the four streets that border the main haute-couture shopping district) are simply expressing in a somewhat exaggerated way a tendency that is present in all their countrymen (and especially countrywomen).