When BP Chairperson Carl-Henric Svanberg earlier this week used the term “small people” to describe, I think, the average person without wealth, social standing or political connections, he was most certainly misspeaking.
We can’t look into his mind, but there is no doubt that whatever his true feelings are, as the titular head of a large multinational company, Li’l Carl’s official position would always be to show respect to all victims of the devastating oil spill that his company’s sloppy cost-cutting caused. It’s possible that Li’l Carl, a native Swede, was translating an expression from Swedish that does not have the taunt of an insult that “small people” does. On the other hand, as my life partner Kathy points out, the very concept of “small people” seems less likely to be part of the Swedish ideology than the British or American, since Sweden has a flatter social hierarchy and a more equitable distribution of wealth.
Li’l Carl made a verbal error, no doubt, but what about those people and institutions who purposely misspeak, with the goal of misleading or enforcing their own reality on both the English language and everyone else? Sometimes they expropriate a term and misapply it, and sometimes they make up a new combination of words.
Here are some recent examples:
- In May of this year, Spirit Airlines announced that it is now installing seats that can’t move backward or forward on some of its aircraft. Spirit describes these new seats with less legroom than ever, as “pre-reclined.” The use of the term “pre-reclined” is supposed to communicate that instead of taking something away from the passenger, Spirit is adding a new service—they recline the seats for you before you even step on board. Of course, no one is buying it. People still say they’re thinking about buying a “used car,” decades after luxury auto makers introduced the term “pre-owned.” In the same way, all Spirit has done is call attention to its latest cost-cutting move.
- In a sermon delivered this past Good Friday, Raniero Cantalamessa, the official preacher of the papal household, equated the criticism over the priest sex abuse scandal with anti-Semitism. Of course it is, Father Cantalamessa, but only if it’s a sin to be Jewish. The good father was trying to say that the sex abuse scandal has been blown out of proportion, much as some unstated harmless peccadilloes of the Jews are blown out of proportion by anti-Semites. Two problems: 1) Jews do nothing wrong merely by being Jewish, whereas abusing children sexually is inherently wrong; 2) The comparison is based on the false and unstated notion that there are some things inherently wrong with Jews.
- In March, former Texas Congressman Dick Armey called the founders of Jamestown “socialists” and said that’s why the town failed. Sure thing, Dick, I understand that socialism is also why the 1962 Mets lost so many games. Armey is completely wrong: as many historians point out, at the time, Jamestown was purely a business venture based on the principles of early industrial capitalism. But for Armey, anything that is bad and fails is by definition socialist.
- Also in March, The New York Times reported that Wahoo, a seafood restaurant in Islamorada, Florida, claims to serve only local fish. When confronted by the fact that a lot of its fish comes from Viet Nam and elsewhere, the owner said that it’s local because he buys from a local distributor.
- Finally, my personal favorite, from the June 12 issue of The Economist: in an article on what’s wrong and right about America’s right-wing, the writer describes Mitt Romney as a “self-made multi-millionaire.” First of all, it’s probably not true, as his father was a successful businessman who served as head of a large multi-national corporation. While I don’t know for a fact, I think it’s a pretty fair guess that Mitt started out with a few million to his name. But beyond the error in fact is the false impression that the Economist is trying to create. We are ideologically programmed, almost from first grade, to admire the self-made person like Andrew Carnegie who started in poverty with no social connections and rose to riches and fame. The Economist wants to extend that admiration to Mitt, but it’s a rank distortion, because even though Romney made hundreds of millions through the purchase and sales of corporate assets, he is in no way, shape or form “self-made.”
Beginning this December or January, I am going to make a special award to the most absurd bending of language of the prior year. I’m calling it The Ketchup Awards, in honor of the condiment that the Reagan administration declared a vegetable for the purpose of evaluating the nutritional value of the federal school lunch program. In a special blog or maybe two, I will list at least 10 finalists and make three awards: 3rd Place gets One Dollop; 2nd Place Two Dollops; and the grand prize winner will get The Full Squeeze.
If you would like to nominate someone for the first annual Ketchup Awards, just post it in a comment on one of my blog entries or email your nomination to email@example.com. Please include the phrase and the person or organization who said it in your nomination. No need for any links, but keep in mind that we will have to verify the facts and a link will make this task a little easier.