Episode 18Jarring Joints & Corporate Language
00:00 / 25:29

Details and Transcript

References

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Transcript

To my enchanting family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome to the eighteenth episode of the Metaphorigins Podcast.

 

Now, to show support if you like this sort of content, please make sure to rate and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or whatever platform you are listening to this on, and follow @metaphorigins on Instagram, where I will be posting most of my updates, as well as on my personal website: kjbmercurio.com/metaphorigins. Just a reminder, I will hold another draw on my 20th episode for the butterfly-printed custom Metaphorigins mug, so look forward to that!

 

Okay. Today’s episode is about an expression I find myself using quite often, particularly when I have accidentally (or intentionally) been rude to someone.

 

Here’s the situation: You hear the sound of the horn and depart ways. After months of anticipation, the Inaugural Potato-Potata Festival has come to an end. You are so proud of your friends Ronald, Joel and Jean for participating with their potato dish inventions, and certainly satisfied with the rest of the other cooks. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry, you just forgot to listen to the previous episode of your favourite podcast, Metaphorigins, to which you’ve promised yourself that you’d to listen to, wink wink.

 

With all the commotion from the festival, you also forgot to do your grocery shopping for next week’s meal prep. You check your weekly meal planning schedule on your phone to create your shopping list. These include:

 

  • fresh veggies for salads

  • apples and oranges for snacks

  • yogurt

  • salmon fillet

  • 1 L milk

  • a dozen eggs

  • a loaf of bread

  • various deli meats for sandwiches

 

Luckily, the farmer’s market is still open downtown a few blocks from the festival. As the efficient planner you are, you decide to pick up these items on the way home.

 

First the fruits and veggies. Man o’ man, do these stands look great, bright colours illuminating the freshest of produce. You head to the lettuce stands filled with strong greens, grab some cucumbers and radishes, as well as some carrots. Right beside are stands full of different fruits, from juicy tomatoes, to yellow and brown pears. You grab some red delicious apples and  a bag of oranges. Not too expensive at all.

 

Right beside the market is a local grocery store, which has many of the other items you still need. You enter and grab a pack of fibre yogurt, a litre of milk, a dozen eggs, a pack of salmon fillet and the loaf of bread. At the cash, the owner of the store smiles as they ring up your items.

 

“Were you just at the Potato-Patata Festival?” she asks.

 

“Yes! It was very good!” you reply.

 

“I could tell,” she says with a laugh.

 

“How could you tell?”

 

“Well you have a lot of crumbs on the front of your coat, and around your neck!”

 

You didn’t realize it at first, but you start to get really itchy around the neck and chest area.

 

“Oh no!” you say, wiping your coat. “Haha I couldn’t control myself. There were just so many good dishes that I had to try! Have you had potatoes with salt before?”

 

“Potatoes with salt? Now that’s crazy!”

 

“Have some with a pinch of salt, it’ll be worth it! Thanks again!” you wave goodbye before grabbing your bags and exiting the store.

 

You check the list on your phone with your one free hand. Only one item left, deli meats for sandwiches. For this, you stop at the Italian Delicatessen beside your house. As you enter, the man behind the counter smiles and waves, as you are a frequent customer of theirs.

 

“Bonjourno! How are you?” the clerk asks.

 

“Allo! I’m doing fine, thank you. And how are you this fine day?”

 

“I am fantastico miss. How may I help you?”

 

“I need a few cuts for sandwiches this week. I’ll take my usual order. Also, what is that delightful smell?”

 

“Ahhhh… That is our hot premium cuts miss. Ready for eating. We have pastrami and beef brisket right now. Would you like some?”

 

“Oh yes, I’ll take an order of each!”

 

“Grazie. Just a few minutes.”

 

The clerk grabs the various cold meats first and starts cutting. As you’re waiting, you notice some crumbs still around the collar of your coat. It must be from the crispy flattened potatoes you had at the very end of the festival. Pieces fell even inside your shirt, and you begin to feel itchy once again. You start scratching your chest and start flinging potato crumbs off your neck. There are a surprising amount of crumbs just underneath your chin, to which you laugh and wipe those off too using the tops of your fingers in an upward flinging motion.

 

The clerk, just packing up the final cold cuts notices what you're doing and his eyes grow wide in confusion. He then looks to the floor, and sees all the potato crumbs you’ve left for him to clean up. Looking frustrated, he grabs a raw pork shoulder and slams it on the scale, packs it in a bag and hands you your cuts.

 

Puzzled, you ask, “Why are you giving me the cold shoulder? I wanted the hot premium cuts.”

 

“You’re total is $120, miss.”

 

“What?! That’s crazy expensive. I don’t even want the cold shoulder.”

 

The clerk mutters something in Italian and says, “You come to my daughter’s deli and ask me to give you hot premium cuts. Then you gesture that you couldn’t care less with you hands, and spread dirty crumbs all over the floor. What have I done for you to treat me so disrespectfully?”

 

You stammer and say, “I… I… Didn’t know that I was gesturing so rudely, and I didn’t mean to dirty your floor.”

 

“Get out! Get out!” The clerk screams.

 

You quickly grab your bags of other groceries. With one last sniff of the heated pastrami and beef brisket, you run out the door. Hopefully there’s another deli just as good nearby.

 

Finally, an excuse to imitate the legendary Godfather scene. This particular expression is pretty neat, to me, as the literal gesture in its words seems to require some measurement of temperature. So why does one provide icy joints to someone they intentionally want to be unfriendly towards?

 

What is the origin to the expression, “the cold shoulder”?

 

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Most of this information was obtained from different articles and videos in heavy discussion over the potential origins to this expression. All sources will be mentioned in the description.

 

The amount of variety in metaphoric language is plentiful. Actually, it’s so plentiful its mind-blowing. From this podcast alone, there are expressions that refer to food (like take it with a grain of salt), to mother nature (like feeling under the weather), to animals (like the elephant in the room), and to relationships (like falling in love). There is no situation, no circumstance, with a non-zero probability of occurring to which, I bet, that some expression cannot be used to summarize. Thematically speaking, this is the power of figurative phrases.

 

Even in circumstances to which no expression is required, no reason to illustrate the scenario other than the literal words one would find in a newspaper article or detective’s report, one can find the vocabulary to describe it in the most fantastical ways, ways that to us now, we wouldn’t choose any other way to describe it. A lot of these are expressions with cold. “Out cold”, “getting cold feet”, “cold calling”, “cold turkey”, these are said without the faintest thought that what was said makes really, no sense at all, but yet makes all the sense in the world.

 

This brings us to today’s expression. The Cambridge Dictionary describes to “give someone the cold shoulder” means to “intentionally ignore someone or treat someone in an unfriendly way”. The idea of giving somebody “the cold shoulder” is so frequently used that any disdain towards someone summons this expression. To unwanted flirtatious advances at a bar, to ignoring that specifically irritating colleague at work, re-runs of the silent Captain Shade: Winter Shoulder are played.

 

Now “cold shoulder” has some interesting references. Probably moreso towards the women listening, have you ever worn a dress or top with the shoulders exposed, but yet still have sleeves? That ingenious design is called a cold-shoulder in which, as described by the verbal branding professional Nancy Friedman in her blog, can reach prices of upwards to almost $1500. I think the most expensive piece of clothing I own are my Jack & Jones jeans at about $100, something I still painfully admit to purchasing.

 

What’s so interesting about giving someone the “cold shoulder” is that there is a large debate in the etymology world (scientists and enthusiasts) on the true origin of this expression. There are two main theories out there. But let’s get to them using Occam’s delightfully sharp razor.

 

In a blog post on Word Addicts, one user looks to Roman Mythology as a possible origin to the story. Particularly, the article hones in on William Creech’s, a Scottish publisher and politician, description of the story behind Tantalus. Paraphrasing the summary of the summary, as one of the sons of Jupiter, Tantalus wants to test their divinity by hosting a feast for the gods and serving them his own son Pelops. The Gods were horrified, and the only one that took a bite (of one of Pelops’ shoulders) was Ceres, God of Agriculture. Now, the fact that the shoulder was indeed served warm does not fit with either the metaphorical meaning nor the literal meaning behind the idiom, and so we continue our search for the true origin.

 

The first of the two major theories comes from a known passive-aggressive action regarding hosting guests. This is best articulated, and I mean best as in please do take a look, in a video by Infotainment’s special series of Famous Phrases with comedian Eddie Brill. In it, he states “this phrase stems from a particular way to serve food to an unwanted guest […] in this case “cold shoulder” refers to serving an inferior cut of meat, or cold shoulder of mutton, to an uninvited guest.” Here, note that mutton is the meat of a fully grown sheep.

 

This origin is extremely popular. It is repeated in credible sources like Bloomsbury International,  the Online Etymology Dictionary, WritingExplained, and very well argued in the CulinaryLore website on food science and history (I didn’t mean to do another episode on a foodie expression, but here we are). Perhaps this is also supported with a 1793 book called the Life and Adventures of Bampflyde Moore Carew, King of the Beggers, where at some point two sailors go from house to house looking for food. They reach a very wealthy man’s house, where the housekeeper presents them “… the greatest part of a cold shoulder of mutton, half a fine wheaten loaf, and a shilling, but did it with great haste and fear, lest his Lordship should see her, and be angry thereat”. You might see how this should not satisfy, as in the case the sailors would have absolutely loved to have a cold shoulder of mutton, as opposed to be rejected with nothing to eat at all.

 

There is a sense of plausibility for this idea of demonstrating unfriendliness to one through serving impoverished meat. But something rubs me the wrong way about this interpretation, at least based on how the metaphorical meaning has come to be in modern day. Why serve someone you don’t like anything at all? Or why serve cold meat when you could serve something cheaper? Meat is still meat and should be prized over other undesired foods like cold veggies or cold bread.

 

This seems to be the main argument for this theory, and springs about the alternative. Let’s work backwards. This expression is commonly used in the works of famous writers like Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain and Charles Dickens. Even the renowned Charles Darwin who, along with Alfred Wallace fathered the well accepted theory of evolution, used it in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. 

 

All of these uses can be traced to the work of a Scottish novelist and poet named Sir Walter Scott. Sources PhraseFinder, the Word Detective, WorldWideWords and SoWhyDoI.com all state that the first theory is an example of folk or (in this case) false etymology. Like my 2nd episode on its raining cats and dogs, false etymology is defined by Wikipedia as “a popularly held but false belief about the origin or derivation of a specific word”.

 

The origin of this expression in print was attributed to Scott’s 1816 work, The Antiquary. In it is the following “The Countess’ dislike didna gang farther at first than just showing o’ the cauld shouther.” Written in Scottish dilect, cauld and shouther reference cold and shoulder respectively. It is also used in another of his works, the 1824 St. Ronan’s Well, in which the line “I must tip him the cold shoulder, or he will be pestering me eternally”. Seeing as Scott described the expression in a glossary at the back of the Antiquary, and is even credited with creating other expressions such as “lock, stock and barrel”, most believe that he popularized phrases in which were somewhat commonly used or floating around in his time’s vernacular. 

 

But our journey doesn’t stop there. In a blog post by Pascal Treguer on worldhistories.net, he states that there are earlier printed versions of the expression. In the Chester Chronicle newspaper, an article published in 1808 (8 years before Scott’s The Antiquary was published), talks about the use of temperature descriptives in everyday speech. Here’s a small excerpt:

 

“The ‘Restaurateur’ says he has ‘hot’ work of it in his ‘ice’ house, and the glass-blower, just released from his furnace, complains of the ‘sultry’ air out of doors. The public plume themselves upon their ‘ardour’ in the Spanish cause, and reprobate all that are ‘lukewarm,’ as ‘cold-blooded’ traitors. The rich miser looks ‘coldly’ upon his poor friend, and the inhospitable landlord treats his uninvited visitor to a ‘cold’ shoulder.”

 

It is difficult in this case to determine the meaning here, whether cold shoulder meant the dish or the figurative act of unfriendliness. However, why I need to mention this is because no other source has talked about this article, and that perhaps this saying did come from the idea of serving crappy, un-heated meat.

 

With all the evidence, I honestly do not believe there is a clear cut case for either potential origin. So unfortunately, I will have to end on that cliffhanger, and state that there is no consensus in the expression community on the origin behind “the cold shoulder”. The battle rages on between passive-aggressive hosting or disregard, and we note here that we may have cut too far with Occam’s delightfully sharp razor.

 

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For the science segment of this episode, I am going to talk about an article published in Vulture titled “Garbage Language: Why do corporations speak the way they do?”. The link to the article will be in the description.

 

Alright, you caught me with this one. This one doesn’t have much scientific basis behind it, as it is mainly a collection of narratives from the author and various others who experienced similar situations to hers. But I just couldn’t resist. The article is so beautifully written and talks about such an interesting topic that I cannot not discuss it (though double negatives are a plague and I do not endorse them whatsoever).

 

The article is written by Molly Young, a literary critic at New York Magazine. Side note, New York Magazine is, like Vulture, owned by New York Media, which is owned by Vox. I naively was surprised that even media is controlled likewise to pop drinks and chocolate bars.

 

The article, again, is a superbly written journey from start to finish. Let me start with what it's about. We’re all quite aware now about the marketing practices of products to entice consumers for purchase. Compound words normally meant for personality traits like conscious-friendly, mind-driven, precision-seeking, and zombie nouns with suffixes like -ment, -ance, or -ation, meant to influence our brains to put their product on a pedestal like no other… Imagine using these words in everyday workplace vernacular.

 

But it is so much worse. At the beginning of the article, Young paints readers an initial picture of what it was like working in various start-ups during the last decade. Consider the action of “to parallel-path something”, a term I had not heard of until reading the article. What it means is to do something simultaneously with something else, which in her case was to create two versions of something. This introduced her to the concept of “the perfect corporate neologism”.

 

How would you respond in similar workplace vocabulary, if your colleague asked you to parallel path something? Greetings to you, this is to confirm my action to parallel-path that item to which I will shoot it to you in a moment’s notice.” Let’s not forget that in some spaces, simpler responses are not the correct way to respond either. A simple “yes, here” could be considered rude, or even more extreme, missing information. As Young suggests “No matter where I’ve worked, it has always been obvious that if everyone agreed to use language in the way that it is normally used, which is to communicate, the workday would be two hours shorter.”

 

Young then recounts the accounts of Anna Weiner, a writer known for her memoir called the Uncanny Valley in which she discusses her time in start-up land, San Francisco Bay Area. Some consider this place a thriving paradise of opportunities, but within the oasis lies a terrible nuisance. Language, or the lexicon of start-ups, is unsubtly manipulative. Take the change of the term customer service, in which workers are providing customers with actual service, to customer support, or my favourite, customer experience. Weiner states the following when describing the verbal habits of her peers at the time: “People used a sort of nonlanguage, which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient: a mash-up of business-speak with athletic and wartime metaphors, inflated with self-importance.”

 

Weiner termed this way of speaking, “garbage language”. Young then considers this in her previous experiences in team meetings, or syncs as they were called “I found myself becoming almost psychedelically disembodied, floating above the conference room and gazing at the dozen or so people within as we slumped, bit and chewed extremities, furtively manipulated phones, cracked knuckles, examined split ends, scratched elbows, jiggled feet, palpated stomach rolls, disemboweled pens, and gnawed on shirt collars. The sheer volume of apathy formed an energy of its own, like a mudslide. At the half-hour mark of each hour-long meeting, our bodies began to list perceptibly toward the door. It was like the whole room had to pee.”

 

What garbage language refers to is blatantly fad-like slang or obstructive vocabulary that most of us are unable to notice permeating our own prose. Young puts it better in that “their facility to warp and impede communication is also their purpose […] It is obvious that the point is concealment; it is less obvious what so many of us are trying to hide.”

 

But garbage language doesn’t just appear in start-ups. The history of garbage language goes as far as factory workers in the early 20th century, then moves to Wall Street, and then to big tech companies to modern day. Several examples Young mentions are CEOs describing what exactly is there motive, their purpose for their businesses, ““I am now a true believer in bringing our whole selves to work,” wrote Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In, urging readers to seek their truth and find personal fulfillment. In Delivering Happiness, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh (Shay) described making conscious choices and evolving organically. In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries pitched his method as a movement to unlock a vast storehouse of human potential.”

 

Acronyms also run rampant. Even through my own experiences, and excluding jargon acronyms for specialized scientific fields, there are acronyms to describe every process, every ideology from workplace productivity to having a stellar resume. People naturally want to shorten things down, even if they aren’t complicated, to simpler versions they can digest. Not acronym related, but this is why I cannot get behind the movement for educational Tik Toks. I am awaiting the day that these either evaporate into the past, or become the platform Vines seemed to lose all foothold in, short video memes. If we can simplify our work to a few words or phrases that make it sound important, would we not feel compelled to use acronyms like some kind of empowerment language? Like Young mentions “Empowerment language is a self-marketing asset as much as anything else: a way of selling our jobs back to ourselves.”

 

But what about when garbage language is used by the top dogs, the ones at the top of the pyramid of corporate hierarchy. In an viral Slack message leak that spawned much controversy to the suitcase company Away, CEO Steph Korey wrote this to her employees seemingly unimpressed with their work: “I know this group is hungry for career development opportunities, and in an effort to support you in developing your skills, I am going to help you learn the career skill of accountability … To hold you accountable — which is a very important business skill that is translatable to many different work settings — no new [paid time off] or [work from home] requests will be considered from the 6 of you … I hope everyone in this group appreciates the thoughtfulness I’ve put into creating this career development opportunity and that you’re all excited to operate consistently with our core values to solve this problem and pave the way for the [customer experience] team being best-in-class when it comes to being Customer Obsessed. Thank you!” How painfully obvious was the purpose of this message to demonstrate dominance in a passive-aggressive light. Young explains the consequences of this, “Korey wouldn’t have sounded any nicer if she’d said exactly what she likely meant […] but I doubt she would have gotten in trouble for saying it. Meanness doesn’t inflame people as much as hypocrisy does.”

 

So where do we go from here? Are we to rise up against garbage language likely sanctioned by the corporate elite, those at the very top? In my view, it seems we are conditioning the general population to not handle honesty very well, to hide the meaning of negative actions or lack of action as best we can to perhaps buy time before the black and white truth is finally revealed. How much slower and confusing a wake up call could be from your boss saying “I’m disappointed in your work and here’s why…” to “I’m going to help you achieve your goal in succeeding in my company by extending your work hours to catch up on your responsibilities, you’re welcome.” Or opposite, how much energy could we save if we all choose to communicate the way we would normally outside of the workplace, professionally of course. Slide attachments in with no messages, unless specified to comment. We should not lose our ability to communicate effectively as a counter to lose our confidence or ego.

 

Thanks for listening to this episode of… Metaphorigins. Remember to rate and subscribe for more episodes and to follow the podcast on Instagram for updates on the next draw. But until then, stay skeptical but curious.

 

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