July 29, 2005

Origin of the Species

When did "failure" shift from a term denoting something that happened to someone into a term denoting who someone was? Here's one theory:
Credit, speculation, debt: the spreading net of confidence created a need for confidential reporting on men's trustworthiness. The nation's first credit-rating agencies opened in the 1840s in New York, close to the banks and merchants who needed the information. The agencies invented a lexicon of succinct ratings to sum up a man: "dead beat" (when suing for payment was as pointless as flogging a dead horse), "bad risk," "a great loser," "good for nothing"--or the triumphant "A no. 1." Comically useless in grasping the value of any life, such judgments nonetheless registered as probity in a society fixated on the stark oppositions of credit and debit, gain and loss.
That's from Christine Stansell's review of Born Losers: A History of Failure in America. (Bugmenot can help prise open the firewall if you don't have a subscription.)
-- Brad Plumer 7:49 PM || ||