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Idioms are hard

Carl-Henric Svanberg, the chairman of BP, has apparently upset some Americans with his reference to “the small people.”

Following a meeting with President Obama at the White House, Svanberg said of the president, “He’s frustrated because he cares, about the small people. And we care about the small people.”

Svanberg later apologized, saying he “spoke clumsily” when he used the phrase. Some people have suggested that he meant to refer to small business people. (I could swear that I heard Tony Hayward offer this explanation on the radio yesterday, but can’t find evidence of it in print. The link is to a blog at The Guardian where a similar explanation is offered in the comments section.) Others suggest that Svanberg, who is Swedish, produced a calque of den lilla människan “the little people”.

My first reaction when I heard Svanberg’s remarks was that he must have been aiming for “the little guy” and produced a near miss.

Where many seem to hear “the small people” as condescending and elitist, “the little guy” has always seemed to me like an attempt to appeal to democratic, even populist sentiment. Consider these examples from the Corpus of Contemporary American English:

A broad swathe of the investor world, including the little guy, is yelling at Chairman Greenspan. (PBS Newshour, 1997)

[It’s] not going to be the rich who are hurt; it’s going to be the little guy that gets hurt, like my aunt and uncle out in Pittsburgh. (CNN, 1993)

Rockne saw Notre Dame as the tough little guy, the outsider, just as he himself had been while growing up. (Smithsonian magazine, 1993)

Whatever the merits of Pyle’s case against San Jose, he looks like a little guy getting stepped on by a high-profile bureaucrat. (San Francisco Chronicle, 1990)

To me, Svanberg seemed to talking about individual people, as opposed to powerful institutions such as government or corporations. Of course, my home and livelihood have not recently been threatened by the company Svanberg represents. If they had, my first reactions to whatever he said might be less generous.

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