THR Web Features   /   October 19, 2023

Had Any Candidate Explanations Recently?

The English language should not be collateral damage in the Fed’s war on inflation.

Vincent Ercolano

( THR illustration; Fed Chair Jerome Powell speaking in 2022; AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Hill.)

One day a few weeks ago, the classical music station I usually tune in to during drive time seemed to be indulging in an all-Rossini afternoon, so I was listening instead to one of those earnest “All Business, All the Time!” stations. The Federal Reserve chair, Jerome Powell, was just starting a press conference to announce that the Federal Open Market Committee had decided to hold the federal funds rate steady for now

Amid the drone of what passes for oracular language among economists, my attention was arrested by the term “candidate reasons.” Answering a long question from a reporter for The Economist, Chair Powell said, “I guess it’s fair to say that the economy has been stronger than many expected, given what’s been happening with interest rates. Why is that? Many candidate reasons.” A few seconds later, restating his point, he did it again: “There are many candidate explanations.” 

Candidate as an adjective—was this the newest lingo, something a copy editor like me should know about? I’d been caught flat-footed when cringe, which has done duty in English as both noun and verb since the days of the cringe-inducing King John, was transmuted into an adjective. I didn’t want something like that to happen again. 

Soon as I got home, I hit the search engines with “candidate as adjective.” I found that my old standbys, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and the American Heritage Dictionary, both list candidate solely as a noun. Merriam-Webster points out, though, that the etymological ancestor of candidate is actually an adjective, the Latin word candidus, meaning “white.” Apparently, the equivalent of today’s blue suit and red tie for Romans who hit the hustings was a toga liberally dusted with chalk.

Some of the noncanonical online lexicographies are totally down with (do people still say that?) candidate as an adjective, and even, God help us, as a verb. Verbix, an online conjugator presented by a self-described “independent nonprofit organization that aims to promote and protect linguistic diversity,” conjugates candidate in nearly twenty tenses, including the future perfect progressive. “I will have been candidating”? Certain GOP presidential aspirants, take note. 

Nominated last year by President Biden to a second four-year term as Fed chair and confirmed by an 80 to 19 vote in the Senate, Powell was originally appointed by President Trump and confirmed by an even wider margin, 84 to 13, in 2018. Although he started out on a good footing with Trump, who said Powell would provide “strong, sound, and steady leadership at the Federal Reserve,” the president soon turned against him for doing what Fed chairs generally do: manipulate the funds rate to keep the inflation beast holed up in its cave. One of the kinder things Trump said about Powell—or perhaps the unkindest, given the importance the former president attaches to skill on the links—was “He’s like a golfer who can’t putt.”

In contrast with his immediate predecessor, Biden has taken the more traditional hands-off approach to the Fed chair: “My plan to address inflation starts with the simple proposition: Respect the Fed, respect the Fed’s independence, which I have done and will continue to do.” And with the annual rate of inflation having dropped from its post-pandemic peak of 9.1 percent in June 2022 to 3.7 percent as of October 2023 (the jobless rate meanwhile having bumped along in a historically low range between 3.4 and 3.8 percent), Powell and his Fed colleagues indeed seem, as he put it, “squarely focused on our dual mandate to promote maximum employment and stable prices for the American people.” But strong medicine can have a bitter taste. Memories of 3 percent mortgages still fresh, would-be homebuyers are finding Powell’s prescription particularly unpalatable—a funds rate rise of 5.25 percentage points since March ’22.

I wish Chair Powell success as he nudges the economy toward his goal of 2 percent annual inflation. And I trust that he meant it when he said, “My colleagues and I are acutely aware that high inflation imposes significant hardships as it erodes purchasing power, especially for those least able to meet the higher costs of essentials.” In the meantime, though, I also wish he would ease a little of the hardship he visited on the English language in his recent press conference, and grant “candidate reason” and “candidate explanation” an early retirement—among their other venial sins, they have such a “Run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes” feel to them. Perhaps, to borrow a term frequently used by John Maynard Keynes, Powell should indulge his “animal spirits,” such as they are, and, in keeping with current fashion, go with something retro: How about cogitable (from the Latin cogitare, “to consider”)? Cogitable would certainly put the Fed chair in good intellectual company: Immanuel Kant pressed it into service, in its German form, nachvollziehbarin the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason, as did the nineteenth-century Scottish philosopher and Kant disciple William Hamilton in his collection Lectures on Metaphysics. Hamilton paired cogitable with conceivable, as in the Conditioned is that which is alone conceivable or cogitable,” while the American Heritage Dictionary treats the two words as synonyms.

Here’s hoping that when the much-anticipated economic soft landing heaves into view, the reasons Chair Powell gives for its impending arrival are indeed cogitable.

Candidate as an adjective? So cringe.