Stephen L. Carter: Please do not call inflation ‘transitory’

A worker stocks the shelves at Pete's Fresh Market in Chicago on Nov. 13, 2020. (Youngrae Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
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Stephen L. Carter Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)

I’m tired of hearing that the current spike in inflation is “transitory” — not because I doubt the underlying economics of the claim, but because the ever-more-common usage is devaluing a precious word.

Officials at both the U.S. Federal Reserve and the White House have been using the word for months. So have their critics. Inflation, says Senator Joe Manchin, isn’t “transitory” because it’s “getting worse.”

Maybe; maybe not. What’s surely getting worse is the overuse of “transitory” to mean “temporary.”

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“The dominance of baseball by an elite class of sabermetrically inclined front offices will be transitory,” a New York Daily News columnist predicted last month. A California court explained last week that a defendant on trial for possessing a firearm can counter the charge by showing that he had the weapon “only for a momentary or transitory period.”

The Grammar Curmudgeon is alarmed to discover that “transitory” has become a hifalutin’ way of saying “temporary” — particularly because of the tendency of language inflation to devalue words by obscuring their traditional meanings. In the case of transitory, we’re losing a nuance we ought to preserve.

Let’s start with a bit of history. On the one hand, there’s nothing new in referring to economic difficulties as “transitory.” A 1915 report from the Library of Congress had this to say about the growth in the number of banks after the Civil War: “The increase has been steady ever since, save for a few normal drops, accounted for by transitory conditions from which the recovery has been comparatively rapid.”

On the other hand, the recent upsurge in the word’s usage is likely a blip. Courtesy of Google’s Ngram Viewer, we can chart a steady decline in the occurrence of “transitory” between 1800 and 2019. Does the downward-sloping curve represent the mere evolution of linguistic fashion? I think not. I suspect that the decline in the word’s popularity mirrors the decline of traditional Christianity.

Seriously.

There’s a lesson in the old-fashioned theological meaning of the “transitory,” and one need not be Christian, or even religious, to see what fast-fading definition we should be trying to nurture.

Cue the Oxford English Dictionary. The first definition of “transitory” might seem to match the word’s current popular usage: “Not lasting; temporary; brief, fleeting.” But the editors of the OED, before proceeding further, append a telling note: “In early use, often in Christian contexts, contrasting life in this world with the (eternal) afterlife.”

Consider this beautiful passage from the 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer used by several Protestant denominations:

And we most humbly beseech thee, of thy goodness, O Lord, to comfort and succour all those who, in this transitory life are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity. (1)

This careful phrasing, tragically dumbed down in later editions, uses the word “transitory” in a narrow sense. The point of the prayer isn’t simply that the life we live is temporary; the point, rather, is that this life is relatively unimportant, our passage through it immeasurably brief when measured against eternity.

One finds a similar notion in the sermon preached in 1865 by Phineas Gurley, chaplain of the Senate, at the funeral of Abraham Lincoln:

Lord, so teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom. Wean us from this transitory world. Turn away our eyes from beholding vanity.

Again, the point of “transitory” is to emphasize not merely the evanescence but the unimportance of our present existence. It prompts us to turn our thoughts toward what truly matters, because we ourselves are in motion, in transit from one world to the next. We’re living in a way-station. So commonplace was this understanding that at the 1817 funeral of Princess Charlotte, daughter of the future King George IV, the celebrant even titled his sermon “The Transitory Glory of the World.”

Preachers eventually applied this trope to far more than the mystery of death, using the word to remind audiences of the fugitive quality of what seems at a given instant of such fundamental importance. “The student is transitory at the college,” wrote a Pennsylvania pastor in 1906. “Soon he is gone and the institution remains.” But time also works its magic on the institution itself: “As the centuries come and go, the college itself becomes transitory and passes away.”

Thus we see the secular meaning of this traditional usage: Do not be so concerned about the troubles of the moment, the word advises us; they are unenduring. The deeper significance is that which worries us at any given instant is unimportant in the grand scheme.

If this is what economists, central bankers and elected officials have in mind when they call inflation “transitory,” they should say outright that they think the public is upset about nothing. (And take the heat for saying so.) But if, as one suspects, hand they mean that they don’t expect the surge in prices to last, plenty of perfectly decent words are available: Temporary. Short-term. Fleeting.

When the subject is inflation, let’s stick with those. When we’re talking about bigger stuff — say, the nature of humanity’s existence — then we can use “transitory.”

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(1) In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, on which the 1928 edition is modeled, the Lord’s comfort and succor are asked for “all them” rather than “all those.” The punctuation also is slightly different.

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ABOUT THE WRITER
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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