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Black Swan Event: Let's Thank Juvenal

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There was a very timely article in the Wall Street Journal (March 21, 2020) by Ben Zimmer dealing with the concept of a "Black Swan" event.

Zimmer explains that this term "a black swan" is being used to describe the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, with the resulting financial market meltdown. 

He explains: "A 'black swan,' for market prognosticators, is a rare, unpredictable event with serious and avoidable effects." A Black Swan, therefore, is an event which is extremely rare and unexpected but has great unanticipated consequences.  

Zimmer reminds us that the term was first mentioned around 100 AD by the Roman poet Juvenal in his "Satires" 6.165.



"Do you say no worthy wife is to be found among all these crowds?" Well, let her be handsome, charming, rich and fertile; let her have ancient ancestors ranged about her halls; let her be more chaste than the dishevelled Sabine maidens who stopped the war—a prodigy as rare upon the earth as a black swan! yet who could endure a wife that possessed all perfections? I would rather have a Venusian wench for my wife than you, O Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, if, with all your virtues, you bring me a haughty brow, and reckon up Triumphs as part of your marriage portion."

So, as Juvenal searched for the woman with his desired attributes, he laments that such a woman was "rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno (a rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan)."



Contemporary use of the expression black swan in reference to an unexpected but influential event is attributed to former market trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who first introduced it in his 2001 book Fooled by Randomness – The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. Taleb argued that the stock market was unpredictable and could be influenced by rare events or black swans, a controversial view which turned out to have some substance in the light of the economic crisis that followed. The expression later gained further popularity after Taleb went on to use it in the title of his 2008 book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.



Ben Zimmer does a great job explaining how the term "a black swan" later became part of everyday speech. Juvenal was the initial source of this term.



guy also known as gaius

Edited by guy

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