Marketplace (APM/NPR), “Bears, Bulls, and BS”

March 4, 2014

Interview on the American Public Media/NPR show “Marketplace” about the origins of the “bear” and “bull” markets. (Mar. 4, 2014)

All of the above theories are wrong.  Or, at least, totally unproven, according to Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer, who is also a producer for

“People like coming up with theories,” he says, “especially when it’s something like bull or bears and it’s not immediately obvious why we should be using these terms.”

He says the term Bear Market (stocks going down) most likely comes from an old saying:

“Don’t Sell the Bear Skin Before You’ve Caught the Bear” – a little bit like today’s “don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

Because back in the early 1700’s, that’s kindof what some traders started doing.

“There were a lot of speculators engaging in what we’d now call shortselling,” says Zimmer. “They were selling stocks they don’t yet own, with the expectation that by the time it was due for delivery, that the price would fall before then, and the speculator would make a profit.”

That was called selling the bear skin, based on the old proverb,” says Zimmer.  A person who practiced this was called a “Bear Skin Jobber,” which was shortened to “Bear”.  Eventually, markets that were conducive to this practice – where prices were falling – were called Bear markets.

“So we have a pretty good idea of the bear part of bull and bear, but the bull is more mysterious,” says Zimmer.

Read the rest here.

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