Obituary: Walter H. Stern / Editor who coined term 'fiscal cliff'

Dec. 14, 1924 - Nov. 2, 2013

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Fiscal Cliff, n.

A situation in which a particular set of financial factors causes or threatens sudden and severe economic decline. ... Popularized with reference to an (ultimately averted) combination of U.S. federal tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to take place on 1 January 2013.

-- The Oxford English Dictionary

The phrase is ubiquitous as air these days, but where did it come from?

The chief suspect is Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, who memorably uttered it in February 2012 before a hearing of the House Committee on Financial Services.

In fact, the first known print citation, the OED goes on to say, appeared more than half a century ago, on Oct. 20, 1957, on the front page of The New York Times.

"To the prospective home owner wondering whether the purchase of a given house will push him over the fiscal cliff," the article begins, "probably the most difficult item to estimate is his future property tax."

The man who wrote that article -- and in so doing gave life to a phrase that has lately poured from the lips of pundits, politicians and the public worldwide -- was Walter H. Stern, a former real estate writer for The New York Times who died Nov. 2 at 88.

Mr. Stern was associated with The New York Times from 1942 until 1961, when he left to pursue a career in public relations.

Hans Walter Stern was born in Frankfurt, Germany, on Dec. 14, 1924; his family managed to leave Germany shortly after Hitler came to power, eventually settling in Queens, N.Y. There, Hans Americanized his name by switching its first and second elements.

Mr. Stern, who earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University, joined The New York Times as an office boy; he was later a reporter covering Queens and the newspaper's assistant real estate editor.

He left to become an executive with Safire Public Relations, founded by William Safire, the future Times political columnist.

In the 1970s and '80s, as a publicist with Mobil Oil Corp., Mr. Stern wrote many of the advertorials that appeared, not uncontroversially, on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times and in other newspapers.

Of all the words that sprang from Mr. Stern's typewriter, the two most famous show no sign of retreat: At its annual meeting in January, the American Dialect Society ranked "fiscal cliff" among the words and phrases most likely to succeed in years to come, behind "marriage equality," "big data" and "superstorm."

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