The Grammarphobia Blog

Don’t bank on it

Q: Why do newspaper headlines refer to “investment banks” as “banks”? By using the same word for free-wheeling financial institutions on the one hand and government-regulated banks on the other, the papers have muddied the waters and perhaps contributed to the present financial crisis.

A: I don’t think newspaper copy editors (the modestly paid folks who write those headlines) should be blamed for the blunders of the fat cats at investment banks – or the politicians who ignored the shenanigans.

And as a former copy editor, I sympathize with the need to trim words to get a headline to fit the assigned space.

Nevertheless, I too have been taken aback by the frequent use of “bank” for “investment bank” in headlines as well as first references in newspaper articles.

I began noticing this about two years ago, and a quick search of the New York Times archive suggests that I wasn’t imagining it.

There has indeed been a drop in the use of “investment bank” in Times headlines over the last two years.

The full term was used four times in the first half of 2006, but not at all during the rest of the year. Since then, the full term hasn’t been seen much in headlines—only once in 2007 and once so far in 2008.

As you might imagine, there’s been no shortage of articles about investment banks in the Times over the last two years. At least seven headlines in 2007 and five in 2008 referred to them merely as “banks.”

I’m not quite sure what to make of all this, since the use of the term “investment bank” in headlines has gone up and down over the years.

For instance, it was used quite often in the late ‘90s (at least eight times in ’98 and another eight in ’99), but much less in the early years of the new millennium.

It would take a lot more research to determine how much of this had to do with editorial decisions at the Times or the ups and downs in investment banking.

By the way, I couldn’t find any citations in the Oxford English Dictionary for “bank” used on its own to refer to an investment bank. The earliest published reference in the OED for “investment banking” dates from 1922. The earliest for “investment banker” is from 1938 and for “investment bank” from 1963.

In Anglo-Saxon days, according to the OED, the word “bank” (banca in Old English) referred to a bench or platform or stage. By the 15th century, it had come to mean a money changer’s place of business (from his table or counter).

The word was first used in its modern sense (an establishment to keep money, lend it, or invest it) in the 16th century.

The entries for “bank” in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) make no mention of investment banks. (American Heritage has a separate entry for “investment bank,” but it doesn’t include the short form.)

The New York Times’s online financial glossary defines investment banks as financial institutions that provide such services as “aiding in the sale of securities, facilitating mergers and other corporate reorganizations, acting as brokers to both individual and institutional clients, and trading for their own accounts.”

The glossary doesn’t define plain old banks.

Should the Times (as well as every other paper) be clearer in its news pages about the difference between banks and investment banks? I think so. After all, investment banks aren’t subject to the same stringent regulations that banks are. And it never hurts to remind us of that.

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