Tchotchke Index says economy improving

Talk about your clues that good times are coming: there's been an uptick in the Tchotchke Index.

And what is that, you ask? So glad you did! See, it’s a sign…

Because like sorcerers reading entrails, economy-watchers are always looking for signals to tell them what is really going on, an indicator they can read and interpret before the big trends appear in the government reports about jobs and GDP.

They look for obscure-yet-significant data as a sort of secret message about the economic undercurrents.

Shipping rates. Sales of cheesecake. Price of a McDonalds burger.

(Our favorite off-beat indicator might be sale of men’s underwear. When times are bad, the thinking goes, men just wear whatever ratty pair they have in the drawer. When men start buying new u-trou, it can only mean they have more disposable income.)

With that kind of logic, demographer Cheryl Russell created the Tchotchke Index back a few years.

Now, what is a tchotchke? The word comes from the Yiddish, and – like many of the words making the transition from 19th century Jewish ghetto to America – it can be a bit hard to translate.

Not that we can’t try.

Merriam-Webster says it's a knick-knack or trinket. Something of no particular function.

Urban Dictionary is a bit more colorful. They call it:

…a small piece of worthless crap, a decorative knick-knack with little or no purpose.

If you are having trouble identifying Tchotchke just look around your house or someone else's and whatever you see that a burgler wouldn't steal is probably a Tchotchke.

As an Economic index, it's compelling, Russell writes this week.

“The more we’re willing to spend on tchotchkes, the greater our economic well-being,” according to Russell.

And now, it's looking up, she writes on Demo Memo, her go-to blog for all things demographic.

Not that we are back to a boom like the late 1990s, you understand, but there’s clear signs of progress.

“The Tchotchke Index remains well below its peak. In 2000, the average household spent $263 …. Spending plunged during the recession of the early 2000s, struggled to reach $236 in 2005, then plummeted during the Great Recession. The index hit an all-time low of $104 in 2013…”

But now, it's headed up again. It was $104 in 2013, $111 in 2014.

Okay, now you're all set with obscure but clever and erudite-sounding factotum to cite around the holiday table as proof that you understand the economy.

Just make sure you pronounce it right. Um, but how exactly is that?

Well, as often happens, there are actually a couple schools of thought on the pronunciation issue. Now, obviously the first syllable is just “chotch.” That’s easy, right?

But the second syllable? Russell doesn’t mention a preference. But some — maybe most — go with the long “e” at the end. But Merriam-Webster leans the other way, recommending “eh” as in egg.

As for the economy, well it does seem to be getting better. Which can only mean — well, you know that blue ceramic frog you’ve got?  Wouldn’t it be so much better if you had a matching set?

And yes, happy holidays, consumers…