December 16, 2008 / 1:06 AM / 10 years ago

Madoff unlikely to oust Ponzi in lingo

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Bernard Madoff may have to wait awhile before his name becomes a term in the popular lexicon and bumps off “Ponzi”, which has become shorthand for financial fraud.

Madoff’s name is already being used for puns, such as “He Made-off with my money”, following his arrest last week on fraud charges in what investigators said was a “Ponzi” scheme that cost his investors $50 billion.

But despite the relevance of his name to his alleged crime, “Madoff” is up against a strong incumbent if it is to become part of the American vernacular and earn a spot in the country’s dictionaries.

“A word has to become a naturalized citizen of our vocabulary,” said Peter Sokolowski, an editor at Springfield, Mass.-based dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster.

That means it has to be used plenty, far and wide, and for a long time, he said. Merriam-Webster editors spend one hour of every day scouring periodicals, books, and journals to decide if a word is popular enough for inclusion in the dictionary.

“It (Madoff) could become a word real quickly, but whether it gets into the dictionary depends on its staying power,” Sokolowski said.

Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant whose scam in the 1920s drew in about 40,000 investors and $15 million with the promise of high returns quickly, has become synonymous with schemes in which money from later investors is used to pay off earlier investors.

Although “Ponzi” is now a well known term in North America but relatively unknown outside the region, the name only entered Merriam-Webster in 1983, 24 years after his death.

Several more recent words have caught on like wildfire and been adopted quickly by Merriam-Webster.

Blog, for example, emerged in 1999 as the amalgamation of “web” and “log” and by 2004 was already in the dictionary.

For “Madoff” to be as successful, it would have to become a generic term for financial malfeasance and displace “Ponzi”, said Sokolowski

But first-mover words in the English language are hard to dislodge.

“The reason ‘blog’ and ‘metrosexual’ got in so fast is because they are words for which we had no other,” Sokolowski said.

“In the case of ‘Madoff’, it’s dubious,” he said. “Because we’ve already got a strong word,’Ponzi’.”

Reporting by Phil Wahba; Editing by Marguerita Choy

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