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What Is a Double-dip Recession, Anyway?


A colorful term with curious meanings takes on the recession.

When you’re as financially clueless as I am, it takes a lot to get your attention. Ominous personal debt and global financial catastrophe both go right over my head, which is more focused on where I can find a dish of ice cream as big as a polar bear cub.

So I appreciate the vividness of “double-dip recession,” a term for a two-headed economic meltdown that’s been in the news. Of course, the colorful, alliterative phrase “double dip” is well-known because of Seinfeld, but there are dozens of established meanings that involve politics, sports, and academia. Over time, the English language has gobbled up far more than two scoops of this term.

So what is a double-dip recession, and why are there so many hand-wringing headlines about it lately? Loosely speaking, the issue is whether the economy will continue to recover or shrivel back to a recession-like state. To get more technical about it, Investopedia defines a double-dip recession as: “When gross domestic product (GDP) growth slides back to negative after a quarter or two of positive growth.” In other words, it’s “a recession followed by a short-lived recovery, followed by another recession.” You’d better hide the children before finishing this sentence, but they also mention the possibility of a triple dip.

On a less financially apocalyptic note, “double dip”—like “spongeworthy,” “yada yada,” “regifting,” “shrinkage,” and so many other words—was given a forceful linguistic push by Seinfeld in the 1990s. The patron schmuck of the double-dip was George Costanza, who committed a faux pas at a wake:

Timmy: What are you doing??

George: What??

Timmy: Did— Did you just double-dip that chip??

George: Excuse me??

Timmy: You double-dipped the chip!?

George: Double-dipped? What are you talking about?

?Timmy: You dipped the chip. You took a bite. And you dipped again.?

George: So??

Timmy: That's like putting your whole mouth right in the dip. From now on, when you take a chip, just take one dip and end it!


That exchange—from the 1993 episode “The Implant”—lodged the expression in the popular vocabulary, and even led some scientists to study just how bacteria-spreading the double-dip is. But it wasn’t an original coinage. The sense of a double dip as shady behavior wasn’t new either, as the same flavor of chicanery extends to other meanings. As far back as 1975, the Oxford English Dictionary has examples of double-dipping that refer to holding two jobs, or receiving a pension from one while working another, as demonstrated in this 1978 use: “‘Double-dipping’, in which retired military personnel draw their pensions while working in other government jobs, would be prohibited.” As Newsweek recently noted, such double dippers have become common. In my other job as a college instructor, I warn students against a different kind of double dip: when a student turns in the same exact work for more than one class, which is unethical, or at least unacceptable.

Other meanings lack a common thread beyond the number two. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang shows “double dip” used as a synonym for a baseball doubleheader, while I’ve spotted it referring to a football player who plays both offense and defense. On Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, a double dip involves taking a second attempt at a question; I haven’t watched the show enough to claim full knowledge of the “Double Dip Lifeline,” but I presume it’s more sanitary and socially acceptable than Costanza's. Douple Dip is also the name of a candy that includes a “swizzelstick to twizzle around in the fizz." When I suggested this column to my editor, she said the term “just feels kind of vulgar to me for some reason.” Maybe her word aversion is caused by some of the meanings on Urban Dictionary, which certainly do have a high ick factor.

Such sleaze is a long way from the original meaning, which brings us back to my favorite food group: ice cream. The original sense referred to two scoops of ice cream dipped in chocolate or something else equally awesome. The OED’s earliest citation, from 1936, mentions “small double-dip stands” which were unfortunately “having a hard time.” Could a double-dip recession have crippled the double-dip ice cream biz?

I have no idea, but it’s clear that moving from the joy of ice cream to the turd sandwich of a recession is a long journey for a word. “Double dip” is an extraordinarily flexible phrase that will probably continue accumulating new meanings as long as things come in twos and we enjoy alliteration, which is just as seductive and appealing as rhyme. In the bank of language, double dip is no chump change.

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