What is it?
A combination of shrink + (in)flation, shrinkflation refers to a kind of closet inflation: manufacturers don’t put the price of a good up, which would constitute real price inflation, but instead reduce the size of the good.
Have you noticed it with anything you regularly buy? I bet you have.
I’m sure it happens with several makes of biscuit: there are fewer in the packet than there used to be.
My eye was caught by an article-ette about it in the Indy on Saturday 9 February. The article reported that Easter eggs are the latest ‘victims’: Cadbury’s Crunchie and Crème eggs will shrink by 7 per cent while the price will go down by only 2.5 per cent.
Shrinkflation is only the latest of inflation’s spawns. Best known is probably stagflation (1965) which is, according to the OED, ‘A state of the economy in which stagnant demand is accompanied by severe inflation’.
The first citation it gives is by the Conservative politician, Shadow Chancellor and very briefly Chancellor Iain Macleod, who is indeed credited with having coined the term:
‘We now have the worst of both worlds — not just inflation on the one side or stagnation on the other, but both of them together. We have a sort of “stagflation” situation. And history, in modern terms, is indeed being made.’
Less familiar, at least to me, is slumpflation: ‘A state of economic depression in which decreasing output and employment in industry are accompanied by increasing inflation’.
The first OED citation is by the journalist and quondam1 editor of The Times William Rees-Mogg (yes, the pater of our very own Jacob Rees-Mogg) from his 1974 book The Reigning Error: The Crisis of World Inflation. Whether that means he coined the word, I do not know.
The opposite of inflation is deflation, which in economic terms means, so the OED tells me, ‘The action or process of deflating currency; an economic situation characterized by a rise in the value of money and a fall in prices, wages, and credit, usually accompanied by a rise in unemployment’.
Wikipedia explains it further as follows, which helps me, as an economic illiterate, understand it a bit better:
‘In economics, deflation is a decrease in the general price level of goods and services. Deflation occurs when the inflation rate falls below 0% (a negative inflation rate). Inflation reduces the value of currency over time, but deflation increases it. This allows one to buy more goods and services than before with the same amount of currency. Deflation is distinct from disinflation, a slow-down in the inflation rate, i.e. when inflation declines to a lower rate but is still positive.’
The Great Depression of the 1930s was preceded by a period of deflation, and the more recent economic crisis (2008) also featured a certain amount of it.
What is the -flation of inflation, stagflation?
The –ation part is the normal Latinate way of deriving nouns from verbs in English. As it happens, inflation directly mirrors Latin inflātiō-nem in form if not in meaning.2 Inflate comes from Latin inflāre ‘to blow into’. Now, often English takes one part of a word to create others, e.g. telethon from marathon, and the part used has no etymological validity as a meaningful part of the original word – and it doesn’t matter that it hasn’t. The Latin parent of inflate consists of in + flāre, to ‘blow into’, and while the verb flāre exists there is no related noun flātiō-nem in Latin. Had it existed, it would have meant ‘a blowing’, I suppose, whereas the English-flation does not have that meaning at all but bequeaths to the words that it helps form a clear signal that they are related conceptually to inflation.
And what about the word inflation?
It’s been in English since the fourteenth century. Not in the meaning we’re looking at here, but as ‘The condition of being inflated with air or gas, or of being distended or swollen as if with air’, e.g.
It purges þe longes of inflacioun. (the lungs)
- Rolle, Psalter, before 1340.
Charles Darwin used it similarly almost exactly five centuries later in 1839:
By the inflation of its body, the papillæ, with which the skin is covered, become erect and pointed.
Darwin in R. Fitzroy & C. Darwin Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty’s ships Adventure and Beagle, between the years 1826 and 1836 III. i. 14
Among its several other meanings, inflation can also signify ‘The quality of language or style when it is swollen with big or pompous words; turgidity, bombast’:
A style which to an English reader will appear to border on inflation and bombast.
Beaumont tr. Barthelemi Travels of Anacharsis in Greece (1796) I. p. vi, 1791
Only in 1838 did the meaning we are concerned with appear: ‘An undue increase in the quantity of money in relation to the goods available for purchase; (in lay use) an inordinate rise in prices’:
The property pledge can have no tendency whatever to prevent an inflation of the currency.
D. Barnard Speeches & Rep.195, 1838
And just as we know who ‘invented’ stagflation (Iain Macleod) so the British economist Pippa Malmgren is credited with coining shrinkflation in 2015, at least in the meaning discussed in this blog.
1 I don’t often get the chance to use quondam, meaning ‘former’ or ‘one-time’. But then it raises the question: does the person so described have to be alive to qualify?
2 In Latin it seems that inflātĭo referred to a literal swelling. Cicero writes habet inflationem magnam is cibus (faba) Literally, ‘This food has a great swelling’, the food in question being faba, i.e. broad beans or faba beans, eschewed historically by Pythagoreans and currently by anyone who wishes not to alienate old friends.