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shameless pleading

Agflation.

Farm faster, Dwayne.

Dear Word Detective: I’m a more recent reader of your work (I noticed recently that someone had been reading for seven years!), and have enjoyed it. I came cross “agflation” in the Economist last week, and I was curious to see this word. Has this been used before? — Dibyo, Bangalore, India.

Seven years, eh? Well, we all work at our own pace. It used to take me forever to eat my vegetables as a child. In fact, I still have some eggplant from 1961 around here somewhere. The good news is that as long as I keep writing faster than that reader reads, the universe won’t collapse. Can someone bring me another cup of coffee?

I’m not sure it’s the article to which you refer, but I have found a piece in the Economist from last summer that explains “agflation” in simple terms: “Aside from wheat [which has hit a new high], the prices of corn, rice and barley have all risen by over a third since 2005. Food prices around the world are rising so quickly that a new term has been coined to describe the ballooning price of breakfast staples and dinner-time favorites: agflation.” The problem seems due, at least in part, to a rush to grow corn to get government ethanol subsidies, making both corn and every other grain (of which there is now less being grown) more expensive. Combine that with bad weather in Canada (which is apparently one huge corn farm), and a box of Pop-Tarts will soon require one of those “payday” loans.

“Agflation” appears to be a genuinely new word. The earliest press citation I can find for it is only a few months old, from May 6, 2007, also from the Economist, in an article titled, oddly, “Nuns Mug Orphan.” (The Economist is known for inventive headlines. They reported President Reagan’s intestinal growth scare back in the 1980s under the headline “A Polyp Case Now.”) The writers credit the invention of the term “agflation” to the brokerage and investment firm Merrill Lynch, which issued a report titled “Global Agriculture and Inflation” on April 27, 2007.

The genesis of “agflation” is obviously a combination of “agriculture” and “inflation,” although it seems to be being used to mean both the rise in price of agricultural goods themselves and the rise in prices of other goods and services driven by rising food prices.

I don’t pretend to understand economics, but “inflation,” in practical couch-potato terms, means that both couches and potatoes become more expensive. It is the job of economists (who do pretend to understand such things) to coin clever terms to describe the particular flavor of discomfort that consumers are suffering at any given moment. The “flation” of “inflation” lends itself to such inventions, and those old enough may remember the “stagflation” (a blend of “stagnation” and “inflation”) that tormented the US economy in the 1970s. It’s been nearly forty years and I still don’t understand “stagflation,” so I don’t plan to dwell on “agflation” too much. But I am going to plant corn on the front lawn next year.

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