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When real estate catchphrases go viral

Mood of the Market

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a "meme" (rhymes with "team") is the name for a theme, a trend or a catchphrase that spreads through a culture like wildfire — it’s a cultural contagion. If you hear of something having "gone viral," that thing is a meme. If you’re over 30, think: "Where’s the Beef?" or "You Can’t Handle the Truth!" Under 30? Think: that Numa Dance guy on YouTube, or actually, just think Facebook, in general.

For example, the phrase "Top Kill," uttered two months ago, would have been meaningless to all but those employed in the offshore drilling trade, it seems.

Today, I defy you to walk into any office, synagogue or bar in America and make it through more than an hour or so without hearing one or more lawyer, accountant or marketing exec waxing on about their best guess as to why the Gulf gusher remediation effort called the "Top Kill" was destined for failure from the beginning.

This from people whose most intimate relationship to the Gulf oil is the gas they pump into their car on Sunday to fuel the upcoming week’s commute.

It occurs to me that after two or three years of recession, depending on your own personal opinion as to the official recession start and end dates, we’re all using a number of real estate, mortgage and money-related linguistic memes, a veritable lexicon of phrases and lingo that were virtually unheard of or simply didn’t exist prior to the housing and financial crisis.

As with the Top Kill, many of these terms were technical phrases known only in the back corridors of financial institutions until the foreclosure epidemic exploded them into the lay lexicon. Others simply weren’t needed and didn’t really exist until made necessary and uber-relevant by the crisis, linguistic inventions birthed by unfortunate necessity.

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Today, more than perhaps ever in human history, we must analyze and communicate, perhaps to the point of over-dissection and excessive analysis and communication, about the events and phenomenon that are shaping our individual-cum-common experience.

With every day and week that passes, the need for new, ever more custom-created words to describe these experiences grows. Maybe we need more words and memes to describe and interact around this recession, as we use more platforms to converse around it.

Our discussions are no longer strictly oral and written in books, papers and magazines, televised and broadcast via radio. They are transmitted via blogs and aggregated via sites dripping with content to overflowing; they are broadcast via slick, produced TV-style "webisodes" and homegrown webcam living room commentary on YouTube and elsewhere.

They are transmitted, in true meme fashion, from one guy’s social network of several hundred people to five of his Facebook friends’ networks with an effortless click of a Share link — in one moment, several thousand people receive his thoughts on short sales and Obama’s Home Affordable programs.

Posterous feeds, "Vooks" (video books), news readers (that people actually use) — memetic phrases around this real estate recession have been spawning at an appropriate rate to feed the ravenous appetites for words and content of all these new platforms people are using to try to understand their world.

So, what are these real estate and recessionary memes? What is this new glossary of new and newly popular words and phrases?

It would have to include phrases like "toxic assets" — which I’m still not sure is different from liabilities. Other finance phrases that went viral during the recession include "mark to market" and "strategic default," the latter of which has recently jumped from a commonplace practice only in big business and high finance into the mindsets of everyday homeowners considering whether to walk away from their homes and mortgages.

The homeowner version of "strategic default" has even been called "jingle mail," for the sound of a parcel containing a homeowner’s door keys being sent to the bank.

And let’s not forget the ubiquitous "bailout" we all heard about ad nauseum last year — although the nausea may or may not have been from the repetitive mention of the phrase.

Of course, "workout," "upside down" and "underwater" would all have to be near the top of the list — before the recession these terms in proximity would have read like the YMCA membership brochure. Now they have new meaning, signifying sellers who owe more than their homes are worth, and the various potential "workouts" or solutions that may be negotiated with their lender, like a loan modification, short sale or deed-in-lieu of foreclosure.

Perhaps the first meme to go on this list, though, should be the one that describes this national experience we’ve all shared, itself: "The Great Recession." It hasn’t been so great in quality, but to the extent that great is a statement of degree, then it is most certainly apropos. What recessionary lingo has infiltrated your consciousness or daily speech?

To the extent that what we speak and think of manifests itself in our outward reality, let’s make sure to add to the real estate glossary more solution-oriented terms. Many of the "funemployed" have been forced into starting creative new businesses and reinventing their career lives through entrepreneurship.

Let’s start with "the new frugality," the 21st century, good-living-based belt-tightening now so popular among folks including the stylish-yet-frugal "recessionistas."

And let’s not forget "plain vanilla" mortgages, credit cards and financial disclosures, the simple and understandable credit terms espoused by "bailout watchdog and financial reform advocate" Elizabeth Warren as one way to prevent a repeat of The Great Recession.

Oh, but before I forget, summer’s almost here! And this might be the last year that financial pressures make a meme of the "staycation." If you haven’t tried one before, I’d urge you to try one while funds are still tight — I have found them to be infinitely more relaxing than their more expensive, travel-heavy counterparts.

Tara-Nicholle Nelson is author of "The Savvy Woman’s Homebuying Handbook" and "Trillion Dollar Women: Use Your Power to Make Buying and Remodeling Decisions." Tara is also the Consumer Ambassador and Educator for real estate listings search site Trulia.com. Ask her a real estate question online or visit her website, www.rethinkrealestate.com.

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