At first, it was paired exclusively with the word “fiscal” and used to describe the sharp increase in taxes and reduction of spending that would have happened in 2013 without congressional action. But since then, it’s crept into the discourse in other forms, flitting around with other modifiers willy-nilly. There’s a deadline on the deficit ceiling? Call that the “deficit cliff”!
The expiration of milk subsidies got called the “dairy cliff.”
And anything threatening to run out of funding is facing its own “cliff,” if headlines are to be believed.
It’s a useful and evocative metaphor, certainly, implying a stark point of no return and a gaping abyss ahead. In fact, it’s so ominous that at the peak (pun intended) of the debate over the fiscal cliff, those who hoped to metaphorically plunge off of it argued that the media should call it instead a “fiscal slope.”
Allan Metcalf, an English professor at MacMurray College and the author of “OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word,” notes that “cliff” is much like suffix “-gate” that’s used to connote scandal — a word or phrase that catches on in popular culture and gets applied to a variety of contexts.
Other examples of the phenomenon include “-pocalypse” and “-mageddon” used as suffixes for various catastrophes, he notes. And thanks to recent current events, we’ve collectively come to refer to percentages, namely, the 1% (the truly elite) or the 47% (GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s estimation of the proportion of government-spongers).
“‘Cliff’ is just another prominent term waiting for others to jump off with it,” he says.