The Journey of ‘Taper’ From Old English to the Fed; The economic buzzword of the day is derived from a word meaning wax candle

September 20, 2013, 8:46 p.m. ET

The Journey of ‘Taper’ From Old English to the Fed

The economic buzzword of the day is derived from a word meaning wax candle.


This week, the word on every financial commentator’s lips was “taper.” For the past year, the Federal Reserve has been buying billions of dollars of bonds each month in its “quantitative easing” program to lower long-term interest rates. Many predicted that the Fed would announce on Wednesday that it would begin “tapering,” or easing up on the bond-buying stimulus. So intense was the speculation over the past few months that many observers started calling the looming announcement “Septaper.” But on Wednesday, Septaper never came. Rather than “tapering,” Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke announced that the bond-buying would continue at its current pace. “Octaper,” anyone?How did “tapering” become the economic buzzword du jour? As a noun, “taper” goes all the way back to Old English, originally referring to a wax candle. (It’s unclear where the word came from, but like “paper” it might be rooted in Latin “papyrus,” since candlewicks were often made from papyrus.)

The gradual melting down of a candle encouraged a shift from noun to verb, as “tapering” came to mean “growing smaller” or “decreasing in intensity.” Often “taper” has been combined with a preposition: “taper off,” “taper down,” “taper away.” Starting in the 19th century, “tapering off” could be used to talk about cutting down on alcohol consumption by drinking less and less each day. “If I could only taper off on a pint a day, for a year or so, I think I might come round in time,” says a character trying to get sober in an 1848 James Fenimore Cooper novel.

Sobriety has, in fact, been a running theme in the language surrounding Fed policy. William McChesney Martin, Fed chairman in the 1950s and ’60s, was famously quoted as saying, “I’m the fellow who takes away the punch bowl just when the party is getting good.”

Mr. Bernanke has refrained from the “punch bowl” metaphor, instead using automotive analogies. In June, when he first suggested that the bond-buying program would be slowed down, he said it would be “akin to letting up a bit on the gas pedal as the car picks up speed, not to beginning to apply the brakes.”

The chairman has also avoided talk of “tapering,” though Fed officials have used the term in discussions of quantitative easing for a couple of years now. In February 2011, when St. Louis Fed President James Bullard addressed the potential market effects of reduced bond-buying, he said, “We developed a tapering program to mitigate that.”

Financial analysts have, in turn, seized on “tapering,” sometimes labeling it “the taper,” in much the same way that “sequestration” on Capitol Hill gets shortened to “the sequester.” And once pundits latch on to a trendy word, it can be very hard to get them to taper off.

—Mr. Zimmer, a lexicographer, is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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