Sunday, September 29, 2019

Lost in a tranche.

The Veteran in a New Field, by Winslow Homer (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     I have no trouble using the occasional exotic word, and certainly endorse the practice. How are you to ever learn new words if you never encounter an unfamiliar one?
     Still, I was taken aback not only to see a word I had never noticed, but see it in the very first sentence of an impeachment story in the New York Times, prominently placed on the upper right hand of the front page, under the masthead:
   "House Democrats, moving quickly to escalate their impeachment inquiry into President Trump, subpoenaed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday, demanding that he promptly produce a tranche of documents and a slate of witnesses that could shed light on the president's attempts to pressure Ukraine to help tarnish a leading political rival."
     "Tranche?" That's a new one for me, and though you can guess what it means from the context—"a bunch" perhaps, or "a pile"?—I leapt to the dictionary to see why the Gray Lady feels the need to deploy it.
     "A cutting, a cut; a piece cut off, a slice" is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, noting "Now only as a loanword from French."
     Indeed, it comes from the French, trenchier, to cut, and thus is related to both "trench" and "trenchant." 
    A slice of documents? The "Now" in my Oxford is 40 years ago, so maybe the meaning has shifted. The online Merriam-Webster defines "tranche" this way:
"a division or portion of a pool or whole. Specifically: an issue of bonds derived from a pooling of like obligations (such as securitized mortgage debt) that is differentiated from other issues especially by maturity or rate of return."
    Plunging into Nexis, "tranche" seems chiefly related to financial dealings. Business stories speak of "tranche triggers." Though it does pop up in the political. On Sept. 19, a report from the British newspaper, The Independent contained this sentence:
       Mr Giuliani had, in particular, asked for an inquiry into the "Black Ledger", a tranche of information about Manafort which was supposedly forged.        
     Earlier this month, Alexandra Lange wrote this, in a column headlined, "Is Instagram Ruining Design?" 
     I'm an architecture and design critic. Buildings are my life. But it isn't that unusual to try to find and follow the tranche of people who love what you love. If you're in the visual arts, they are probably on Instagram.    
     So obviously "tranche" is in common use among the chattering classes.  Though I can't see myself using it, just because it doesn't bring anything to the table. Take "the tranche" out of Lange's sentence above. Improved, isn't it? 


  1. My introduction to the word came in the coverage of the Crash of '07 & the subsequent Great Recession. Mortgage-backed securities, a key to the disaster, included "tranches" of mortgages with varying interest rates & risk. "A collateralized mortgage obligation (CMO) offering a partitioned mortgage-backed securities portfolio might have mortgage tranches with one-year, two-year, five-year and 20-year maturities, all with varying yields."( Lousy, high-risk mortgages foisted on folks who couldn't afford them were stuffed into groups of better deals. How'd that work out?! Anymore, I see & hear the word with a distinctly negative connotation.

  2. Why DO you think "the gray lady" felt the need to use it?
    It does seem wholly unnecessary and somewhat mosplaced if its usage has been mostly confined to financial matters - except for in the U.K..

  3. Lovely and appropriate illustration choice!

    Maybe it’s because my husband worked in the financial sector (not earning $1 million a year, sadly), but I find tranche to be a succinct w way to describe a specific section of a larger category.

  4. Not sure. I doubt to show off. Maybe somebody nudged from the financial realm wrote it, not realizing the context has changed. The Times in general has a disconnect with readers who aren't arbitrage traders earning $1 million a year.

  5. The English language is a vernacular of vernaculars, with a vocabulary originally stitched together from Greek, Latin, French, and German, and with no policeman baring the introduction of coinages and all matter of foreign imports. New words appear on the doorstep all the time and their meanings often evolve to fit new circumstances. As Robert Graves pointed out in a lovely book called "The Reader Over Your Shoulder" this has sometimes been deplored by self-appointed guardians of the language, but resistance is futile. As evidence, he cited a complaint lodged by Alexander Gil, a 17th Century schoolmaster:

    "O harsh lips! I now hear all around me such words as 'common, 'vices,' 'envy,'
    'malice,' even 'virtue, 'justice,' 'colour,''grace,'favour,' 'acceptance.'
    But whither, I pray, have you banished those words which our forefathers used
    for there new fangled ones."
    That said, 'tranche,' with its contemporary meaning, might be useful to people prepared to use it all the time, but it seems not ready for public consumption.


  6. While I'm vaguely familiar with what "tranche" means, I had not come across "loanword" before, and I'm concerned about what we're supposed to do if the French want it back. I have a horrible mental picture of reaching a crucial point in a conversation about subpoenas, and having to lapse into silence while making slicing motions with the hands.


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