About This Site

Figaro rips the innards out of things people say and reveals the rhetorical tricks and pratfalls. For terms and definitions, click here.
(What are figures of speech?)
Ask Figaro a question!

This form does not yet contain any fields.

    « Small People Are Tropical | Main | Blind, Yes. Faith, No. »

    Do Small People Have a Figure?

    A Figarist posted the inevitable question on Ask Figaro: does the BP chairman’s gaffe have a rhetorical name? Why, yes, it does, and Figaro is big enough to tell you what it is.

    Dear Figaro,

    Aside from being appallingly classist and culturally inept, is BP’s chairman remark on how much BP loves the “small people” of the Gulf Coast a figure of speech?


    Dear Kaine,

    Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, a Swede, clearly meant “the little guy” when he said “the small people.” The mistake is a soraismus (so-ray-IS-mus), a clumsy mix of languages. That’s Greek for “loading up a pile of caca.”

    The incident reminds us of the time many years ago when famous Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci interviewed  Henry Kissinger for an Italian magazine. Trying to impress the beautiful reporter, the plump, German-born Secretary of State described himself as a lone cowboy “leading the caravan” and entering the “village” alone. The American press gave Kissinger a lot of well-deserved grief for that interview. But in fairness to Kissinger, he probably actually said “wagon train” to Fallaci (carrozza in Italian) as well as “town” (villago).

    Svanberg’s gaffe simply eliminated the incompetent middle man.

    Is it unfair to attack Svanberg for his soraismus? Maybe. But the quote does amply illustrate BP’s reckless arrogance. Besides, a corporate chairman should be sophisticated enough to earn his giant’s salary by vetting his rhetoric. Figaro is available to help for a big person’s fee.  Meanwhile, we say, ridicule away.

    PrintView Printer Friendly Version

    EmailEmail Article to Friend

    Reader Comments (16)

    To me that illustrates the whole problem of rhetoric. At a time when BP should be focusing on plugging the well, it has to fend off attacks from people like you. Shame, Figaro!
    June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie
    We would offer to dive down there and plug the hole ourselves, but we're afraid that BP would find us too small.

    The political pressure--and public shaming--of figures like Svanberg help create the climate for the $20 fund that Obama jawboned out of the company. Rhetoric is the language of politics. Is it messy and oily? Yes. Does it occasionally erupt into toxic gushers of rhetoric? Yes. But such is the gas that democracy runs on.

    Figaro would continue this conceit, but he would have to drill a relief well to stop it.
    June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Do you agree with Kaine that the chairman's statement was "classist"?
    June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJacques
    Not terribly. Put it this way: What if Svanberg had said "little guy" instead of "small people"? Then he'd be patronizing--like an American politician--but not classist, right?
    June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Like Obama talking about "folks." "Folks" this, and "folks" that. It drive me up the folking wall.
    June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBenny
    I couldn't agree more, Benny. Saying "folks" does not make one folksy. In a way, you could call Obama's "folks" an ongoing soraismus--an Ivy Leaguer's clumsy attempt to employ the language of The People.
    June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBenny
    That's kinda like police using "gentlemen" when they refer to perps. "The gentleman drew a knife on me which is why I tasered the gentleman."
    June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJeanette
    Gentlemen are just folks. Only not as small.
    June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterS-ness
    Did you mean $20 BILLION? I don't see Obama jawboning a twenty out of BP, unless he ran out of gas.
    June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSally
    What is "jawboning"?
    June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHenrik
    Jawboning is a form of arm-twisting, using a more rhetorical part of the anatomy. Usually defined as "moral suasion," jawboning has to do with the U.S. President using his moral authority to persuade, when he doesn't have the legislative or regulatory power.

    The term first became popular during Lyndon Johnson's administration, when he "jawboned" his way into inflation controls. The term probably has to do with talking (using the jaw bones); but it may also relate to the story of Samson, the Biblical strongman who slew a thousand of the enemy with the jawbone of an ass.

    In other words, an unauthorized weapon.
    June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Yes, Sally, BILLION. Thanks for the catch. We now feel very small.
    June 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    You refer to the chairman's mistake as a "gaffe"? What does that mean, exactly?
    June 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnne
    The word comes from the French, meaning "mistake." To fais une gaffe means to make a mistake. But the French, perverse souls, leave out the "une" to mean "Look out."

    In other words, "Make mistake" means "Be careful."
    June 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    I'm not sure you've actually addressed the original question, Fig. Isn't "small people" a trope of some kind?
    June 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterEric
    You're right, Eric. "Small people" is a trope--a metonymy, to be specific. Their position in society is itty-bitty, a characteristic that's used to define the people themselves. "The little guy," on the other hand, is a synecdoche--one person used to describe a type or group of people. Of course, the "little" part of the guy is a metonymy as well...

    Whew. It's getting tropical around here. In general, if you something isn't literally true--the "small people" in America seem to get larger every day--then it's probably either a trope or a lie.
    June 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro

    PostPost a New Comment

    Enter your information below to add a new comment.

    My response is on my own website »
    Author Email (optional):
    Author URL (optional):
    All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.