Calling this a new expression may be cheating slightly. Decrement, which comes, like its sibling increment and cousins crescent and crescendo, from the Latin crescere (to grow), has been around for centuries.
The Shorter Oxford says its first (and long obsolete) meaning originated at, appropriately enough, Oxford University, to describe the deductions taken off a student’s scholarship to cover college expenses (some of which rejoice under the name battels, a word of mysterious origin—”Perh. from BATTLE verb“—guaranteed to make any undergraduate’s heart sink when the letter comes at the end of term and shows just how many pints he or she put on the tab in the buttery—which, contrary to what one might think, is mostly about beer, not butter).
But decremental, said Jeff Opdyke in an article in the Wall Street Journal in 2009, has recently emerged in a rather more sinister context: the international economic crisis. Here it means what you might expect it to mean: it’s about negative increment, i.e., the amount by which earnings or profitability falls when sales drop off.
It’s so much more unusual than incremental that most online dictionaries and spellcheckers don’t recognize it—J.P. Morgan Chase analyst Stephen Tusa told Opdyke, “I don’t even know if it’s a real word, because it’s always underlined in red in my Word documents”; and when I searched for the piece on the WSJ site the first thing it asked me was “Did you mean incremental?”
“Decremental margin,” Opdyke explained “is effectively the opposite of operating leverage, or the degree to which each dollar of incremental income adds to profits. Businesses have certain fixed costs necessary for a certain level of sales…. When sales evaporate, as is happening across so many industries today, companies aren’t as adroit at pulling their costs back out of their production process.” Which I believe means that the effect on the company as it loses sales is proportionally worse than the mere reduction in income. In other words, as things get bad, they get even worse!
Opdyke quotes an analyst who says that decremental is “an ugly word,” meaning mainly, perhaps, that it describes what people consider an ugly phenomenon—but I think its ugliness is derived more from its connotations (linguistic or otherwise) with some other words that describe ugly things—such as excrement and detrimental. Still, it’s kind of cool, even if it took a disaster on a global scale, that a stale, flat and definitely unprofitable expression ended up with a new lease of life.—TAMARA GLENNY