Word Games: Austerity

Autumn: season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, and the party conference. If there's one thing a party conference is not, it's mellow. More like: sweaty, gossipy, overpopulated, guff-prone and ego-fuelled. As for fruitfulness, well, there's obviously no fruit allowed in the age of austerity, so you can count that out. The only thing we can hope for is mist.

It's oddly grand as a word, austerity, given that it conjures up a mood of government-sponsored gloom. It comes from the Greek austeros, which means bitter or harsh, or more precisely when wine or fruit makes the tongue dry, as in: "This red wine is horribly austeros. It can't be Jacob's Creek."

Nowadays, austerity refers to a state significantly less fun than that created by cheap liquor. In the George Osborne paradigm in which we live, austerity is an economic policy: deficit-cutting, slashed spending and the mysterious evaporation of benefits. That, and the end of general bonhomie, for austerity is a severe, sombre word.

I suppose austerity itself might see its historical trajectory as a major promotion. It's risen from being a strangely specific food-and-drink-related insult, to the defining term of an entire era in global economics. So saturated are we in austerity and its various measures, that the inevitable journalese has been born: welcome, following in the illustrious footsteps of heroin, "austerity chic".

A writer on the Huffington Post says that pundits across America are buying into austerity chic. It's possible he takes the fashion metaphor too far ("Being in the red is the new black"; "'Austerity' is this year's 'WMD'"), but he has a point. Austerity has become the bandwagon du jour. And like anything in fashion (high-waisted trousers, Twitter), people flock, happy to forgo sense or logic for the sake of looking, or sounding, like everyone else.

The only answer, to extend the metaphor, is to start a new trend and demote austerity to last season's discount bucket. Surely it would be happiest there anyway; there's nothing austerity likes better than a good bargain.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter