Crunchy business vocabulary

Peanut Butter (Image: https://nopalmoil.wordpress.com/)

This post first appeared on Milan English Blog by Robert Dennis in 2010. It’s full of “crunchy” business and financial terms, plus a nostalgic survey of vintage British snack brands.

Warning! Some of the vocabulary in this article is very advanced!

If you’ve been reading the British press over the last few years, and in particular the coverage of the global financial crisis, there is one phrase that you will have found keeps cropping up: the credit crunch.

The term “credit crunch” relates to the lack of available credit, particularly the reluctance of banks to lend to each other (a practice known as interbank lending). Credit crunch is a suitably dramatic-sounding phrase that works well on TV and in newspaper stories, especially in headlines (where it can be simplified to just crunch when space is limited).

The word crunch literally means to crush food between the teeth as when you bite into an apple. It can also suggest a sudden, powerful movement, such as the violent, metallic grinding sound produced when a car driver tries to change gear suddenly (known as crunching the gears). There is, I suppose, a cognitive similarity between this and the sudden shift in normal banking practice that caused an important mechanism in the economy to instantly seize up. 

A large number of financial English phrases depict money and capital as a liquid (liquiditycurrencycash-flowcash injection, etc). The image, then, of this liquid suddenly not flowing (as, for example, when we talk about funding drying up, or turning off the tap) or becoming solid (as in freezing someone’s assets) suggests that the financial engine of a business has stalled; there is an interruption to the flow of capital that it needs to keep running. Likewise, the credit crunch is both a metaphor for the sudden malfunction of the banking and finance sectors due to the absence of liquidity; and, of course, it’s also a description of the impact this has had on the wider economy as companies, in particular retailers and manufacturers – and consumers – are suddenly unable to operate because the machinery of financial institutions and markets has ground to a halt. 

There are a number of ideas associated with “crunch”. The most common of these is that of eating something crunchy, such as an apple or a slice of toast. In order to crunch something it has to be hard to begin with but is then physically broken down by the action of one’s molars crushing it. Compare this to chewing, which is similar, but which involves a slightly different process. When you chew something, such as chewing gum or nougat you grind it between your back teeth, but instead of destroying or transforming its structure you are simply softening it while it retains its essential integrity. For example, if you chew a piece of meat it’s still a piece of meat when you swallow it. A bolus (the “ball” of food you make with your mouth) of apple or toast on the other hand has lost all its original texture (otherwise you would choke as it went down). 

Crunch also suggests the act of biting into something (as in the expression to crunch into an apple), while chew implies that you have already either bitten off a piece or cut up something which is now entirely inside your mouth. (Think of the English expression to bite off more than you can chew.) If you were eating something which is chewy but too large to put in your mouth all at once (such as a Curlywurly, a popular sweet (confectionery) in Britain circa 1975, which consisted of long plaited strips of toffee dipped in chocolate), you would still have to bite off part of the Curlywurly before you could chew it.)

On the subject of confectionery nostalgia, the Double Decker (does it still exist?) consisted of a crunchy chocolate biscuit layer with a chewy soft nougat layer on top. The whole thing was coated in milk chocolate and the TV advertising that accompanied it (inevitably accounting for more than half of its appeal) featured legendary bearded political satirist and whimsical humorist Willy Rushden insisting that the Double Decker was alternately chewy and crunchy. (I suppose you really have to be British to appreciate this; it’s similar to listening to Italians discussing exactly which sugo (sauce) you need to have with farfalle (bow-tie pasta) in order to get exactly the right taste-texture sensation – the narcissism of small difference writ large?)

Crunchie, a honeycomb bar covered in chocolate, was (and indeed still is) crunchy. It’s classic advertising slogan “Get that Friday feeling” neatly combined the exploited worker’s alienation from his / her labour (you’re only happy when the weekend is nearly here) with the consumer’s ever-present desire for (and belief in) instant gratification (Why wait till Friday to feel happy? Have a chocolate bar now and it’ll cheer you up, even though it’s Monday morning.)

The expression number cruncher, which means someone who works with figures, usually statistics, is a slightly derogatory way of describing a person who only focuses on calculations and quantities, perhaps at the expense of imagination or creativity. (A similar prejudice is demonstrated by calling an accountant or book-keeper a bean counter.)

Crunch can also mean “important” or “critical” as in the phrases crunch time / moment or a crunch vote in Parliament or the US House / Senate (a decisive vote). Perhaps here, the underlying idea is that something is irrevocable and the players are under enormous pressure. I have the image of rocks being smashed together under an intolerable force, violently producing a dramatic result. I seem to remember something from school geography about metamorphic rock (marble?) being created this way (as opposed to igneous or sedimentary rock).

It’s also reminiscent of the car crunchers (or crushers) that were obligatory in every US police or detective show of the 1970s. In a scrapyard (junkyard, US) an outsize Ford or Thunderbird is grabbed by a huge magnet at the end of a chain hanging down from a swing arm. The car dangles in the air, swaying like a condemned criminal dispatched on a gibbet. Finally the arm swings round and the electro-magnet is suddenly cut. The car falls into the demonic jaws of a crusher, where it is pounded and buckled into a compact metallic cube, which the machine spits out onto a conveyor belt. A multi-layered symbol, the car crusher stands variously for:

  • an immediate threat (quite often the driver would still be in the car, at the mercy of the mob boss waiting to give the signal – a raised cigar – to the crane operator)
  • the brutality and callousness of the disposable consumer culture, chewing up and spitting out not only used cars, but also surplus Motown labour and dwindling natural resources
  • a stand-in for the destroyer god in polytheistic religions (such as the Hindu divinity Kali). The feeding arm and the hydraulic jaws suggest a powerful (and hungry) being that must be propitiated, like the Minotaur. This seems to play on our deep-seated fear of becoming someone else’s lunch (and the unintentionally terrifying promise of overbearing Jewish grandparents that “Oy, I could eat you!” which their diminutive descendant may not realise is actually metaphorical)

The car crusher is invariably stopped at the very last moment by the hero (literally) putting a spanner in the works. (A device used in countless Hollywood films, including perhaps most memorably the Coen Brother’s Art Deco critique of American capitalism, The Hudsucker Proxy.) The gears crunch, the grinding jaws are suspended in a quivering, twitching vibrato that lasts just long enough for the potential victim to escape, followed immediately by the resumption of the screeching and growling of metal against metal (although with a slightly different twist in The Hudsucker Proxy – watch the DVD). Just so with the economic recovery, the anticipated resumption of business as normal – the newly-lubricated wheels of industry are starting to turn again. Capitalism may be a bad thing but the effects of a financial system coming to a halting, crunching end (with little sign of a revolution to follow) seem a lot worse. (Perhaps a case of the devil you know…).

On a final alimentary (food) note, the word crunch in Anglo-Saxon FMCG (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods) marketing seems reserved for products made from nuts (including crunchy peanut butter) or for (sweet) biscuits. It is not normally applied to savoury things, such as crisps (patatine), which, however, in Italian are considered “croccante” (crunchy). Crisp in English suggests a certain brittleness of texture, while crunchy implies that something would bear at least several bites – i.e. it would have a certain durability or resistance (like a nut) not present in something as insubstantial as a crisp.

(c) Robert Dennis 201O

Car crusher update: since writing this a few years ago, the junkyard car-crushing motif has reapeared in the popular TV series Breaking Bad and more recently in Gotham. (2018)