Walter H. Stern, 88; coined term ‘fiscal cliff ’ in ’50s

Mr. Stern used the term when writing an analytical article about taxation.
Mr. Stern used the term when writing an analytical article about taxation.

NEW YORK — The phrase “fiscal cliff’’ 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.

Since then, Bernanke has been widely credited with having coined the term, including by The New York Times, in an article last November.


But in 2008, Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, warned in a statement of a looming “fiscal cliff.” Safir Ahmed, a journalist, used the phrase in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch as far back as 1989.

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In fact, the first known print citation, the Oxford English Dictionary states, 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 news 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 Times who died Nov. 2 at 88.

Mr. Stern was associated with the Times from 1942 until 1961, when he left to pursue a career in public relations. What he could scarcely have known that day in 1957 was that in the course of writing an analytical article about taxation, he built a small but powerful lexicographic time bomb.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as “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 US federal tax increases and spending cuts scheduled to take place on 1 January 2013.’’

“Fiscal cliff” lay largely dormant for decades, cropping up in the Times on only seven more occasions through the end of 2011.

Then it exploded.

In 2012 and 2013, the phrase appeared more than 1,000 times in the print and online editions of the Times, more than 3,000 times in the Washington Post and more than 4,000 times in the Wall Street Journal, to name just a few of the news outlets that brandished it.

Hans Walter Stern was born in Frankfurty; 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 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 ( n., first citation, 1914) that appeared, not uncontroversially, on the Op-Ed page of the Times and in other newspapers.

Mr. Stern, who lived in Roslyn Harbor, N.Y., and Boca Raton, Fla., leaves his wife, the former Donata Ernstin; a son, Roger, who confirmed his father’s death, in Port Washington, N.Y.; a daughter, Claudia Stern; and two grandchildren.