When Did the Great Depression Receive Its Name? (And Who Named It?)

History Q & A

Mr. Mendel is an HNN intern.

The Great Depression: Where, exactly, did this term so present in the American lexicon, and so connected to America’s historical narrative, come from? Who said it first?

In The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932-1972, author and historian William Manchester argued that Herbert Hoover deliberately chose to use the word “depression” when discussing the economic situation of the time. Although similar economic downturns in American history had been referred to as panics or crises, Manchester explained that Hoover believed that the word depression sounded less alarming.

Manchester is not alone in his assertion. Many have argued that Hoover was, in the words of one historian, “the person most responsible” for associating the economic collapse of the 1930s with the word “depression.” But he was not the first president to use the word "depression." Preceding presidents had long used the word depression in reference to a slumping economy. Particularly noteworthy are instances in which presidents used the word “depression” during periods of economic turmoil that were later remembered as “panics.”

James Monroe, for example, during the Panic of 1819, referred to the onslaught of bank failures and a depreciating currency as “the depression.” In 1874, during the Panic of 1873, Ulysses S. Grant expressed his concern over “the depression in the industries and prosperity of our people.” Rutherford B. Hayes similarly remarked during his inaugural address in 1877, that “the depression in all our varied commercial and manufacturing interests throughout the country... still continues.” These are but a few examples. Monroe, Grant, Hayes, and many other presidents that came before Hoover, did not refer to the faltering economies they inherited as crises, but rather as depressions.

Not only is "depression" not a Hoover original, neither is “Great Depression.” This label was also used in pre-Hoover American history. James Monroe first used the phrase in 1820 in his Fourth Annual Message. In 1928, the Republican Party Platform boasted, “Under this Administration the country has been lifted from the depths of a great depression to a level of prosperity.” Calvin Coolidge, as well as Hoover himself, referred the post-WWI recession as “the great depression of 1921.”

In the beginning stages of the Great Depression, Hoover remained in a state of denial over worsening economic conditions. Shortly following Black Tuesday, Hoover remarked that the “conditions are fundamentally sound.” Even as late as December 1930, Hoover maintained that “the fundamental strength of the economy is unimpaired.” It was not until 1931, when it became impossible to deny the economic train wreck transpiring, that Hoover began to refer to the economic situation of his own time as a “great depression.” Excerpts of Hoover’s use of the term “great depression,” however, contain a feeling of generality. In a speech in the fall of 1931, for example, Hoover remarked, “I need not recount to you that the world is passing through a great depression.” The presence of the indefinite article “a” is important to note.

The term, the Great Depression, is, as we know it today, a proper noun. It is a term used to refer to a specific historical era, and hence requires a definite article, the, when referring to it; not the indefinite article, a. In all of Hoover’s usages of the phrase “great depression,” none contained a definite article. The phrase, "the great depression," in reference to the 1930s, did not appear till after Hoover left office. Some historians argue that the true inventor of the phrase, the Great Depression, is Lionel Robbins, a British economist who lived during the Depression. In 1934, after Hoover’s tenure in office, Robbins wrote the book, The Great Depression, which contains what some historians, notably David F. Burg, consider to be the fist usage of the phrase we now use to to describe the economic meltdown on the 1930s.

Robbins was unique because of his use of capitalization. In all the instances when presidents, including Hoover, used the term “great depression” prior to the 1930s, it was not capitalized. Even during the 1930s, when Hoover, and later Roosevelt, discussed the economic situation, “the great depression” remained un-capitalized. In 1936, for example, Roosevelt lamented the suffering citizens went through “in the days of the great depression.” By comparison, in 1952, with the national election nearing, Harry Truman lambasted Republicans for having “brought on the Great Depression.” It was only later, once the Depression had subsided and could be remembered as a historical era thankfully in the past, that the term “great depression” could fulfill its proper noun potential and take on the capitalized form that we know today.

Although Hoover did not quite invent the term the Great Depression, he did play a role in its formation. Hoover’s decision to refer to the economic situation as a depression was not as original as William Manchester claims, but it did set the tone for the way in which Americans would refer, and later remember, that period of economic downturn.

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    More Comments:

    vaughn davis bornet - 6/19/2009

    I just don't remember the origins of "relief, recovery, reform" at this time. I think I knew at some point.

    If I were doing it, I would look first in Schlessinger, Jr. and then in Friedel, both orderly historians. I had no luck with Edgar Eugene Robinson, The Roosevelt Leadership, 1933 to 1945.

    I thought the essay on Depression a very good piece of work. I am of opinion that Hoover did not know of the several earlier instances the author dug up, and that he thought he was pioneering in its use. Still, I could be wrong.

    I will look in Robinson and Bornet, Herbert Hoover: President of the United States, but I would not expect the subject to have come up there.

    Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon

    Oscar Chamberlain - 2/18/2009

    Interesting article. Thanks!

    Lately I have been curious about the origin of the division of FDRs programs--in particularly the early New Deal--into categories of "relief", "recovery," and "reform."

    Was that part of the Administration wordplay from the outset, or was it first used by others to explain it?

    If you could shed light on that, I would be appreciative.