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Close shave and a haircut, two drachmas?

A euphemism originating at the barbershop has become the metaphor for investors perhaps about to lose their shirts on Greek debt.

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Who knew that what they teach at barber college would turn out to be so central to the world of international finance? I'm talking about "haircuts" and the question of how many foreign banks that invested in Greek debt may get one.

General-purpose dictionaries do not seem aware of this use of "haircut." They confine their definitions to the more prosaic: the act of cutting hair, or the style in which the hair is worn, e.g., a fashionable, or awful, haircut. But here's how the Double-Tongued Dictionary ("a dictionary of fringe English, focusing on slang, jargon, and new words") defines the phrasal verb, to take a haircut: "(in finance) to accept a valuation or return that is less than optimal, especially to partially forgive a debt."

It's interesting how metaphors of personal hygiene turn up in the context of financial reversals. If you "take a bath," you will be more socially acceptable, but in a Wall Street context it means your stock price is plummeting. And let's not forget the idiom "being taken to the cleaners."

It may be that some of us remain conflicted (just maybe) about accumulating material wealth. After all, once an investor has taken a bath and taken a haircut, he may not be left with much of what's sometimes known as "filthy lucre."

That's a phrase that appears five times in the New Testament epistles of the King James Bible but goes back earlier, to Tyndale – his rendering of a Greek phrase, aischron kerdos, that might otherwise have been Englished as "dishonorable gain," as the Chambers 21st Century Dictionary has it, or "shameful profit," as other sources suggest.


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