cyclical, secular

David Leonhardt in the NYT Sunday Review on October 9th, in “The Depression: If Only Things Were That Good”:

Economists often distinguish between cyclical trends and secular trends — which is to say, between short-term fluctuations and long-term changes in the basic structure of the economy. No decade points to the difference quite like the 1930s: cyclically, the worst decade of the 20th century, and yet, secularly, one of the best.

The cyclical/secular contrast is nice phonologically — though it’s always dangerous to have opposed technical terms that are phonologically similar and semantically related.

This use of secular was new to me, but then I’m not trained in economics. It seems it’s been around for over a century.

OED2 on the adjective secular has one set of uses, going back many centuries, in which it’s contrasted with religious or sacred, and a second set under the general heading “Of or belonging to an age or period”. Three relevant subentries in the second set:

Living or lasting for an age or ages [cites from a1631 – John Donne – on]

In scientific use, of processes of change: Having a period of enormous length; continuing through long ages. [with uses in astronomy and in geology, physical geography, meteorology, etc.; cites from the early 19th century on]

Econ. and Statistics. Of a fluctuation or trend: occurring or persisting over an unlimited period; not periodic or short-term.

The first two cites for this last use:

1895    A. Marshall Princ. Econ. (ed. 3) I. v. v. 470   There are secular movements of normal price, caused by the gradual growth of knowledge, of population and of capital, and the changing conditions of demand and supply from one generation to another.

1926    L. D. Edie Econ. II. iv. 49   Economic fluctuations fall into four major types: seasonal, secular, cyclical, and residual.

(Note: seasonal, secular, and cyclical all together.)

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