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Jewish World Review Dec. 12, 2002 / 7 Teves, 5763

Geoffrey Nunberg

Geoffrey Nunberg
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For love or money | There are few things as dogged as a business writer who gets a meaty metaphor between his teeth. Here's how Business Week described the recent announcement of a merger between two cruise ship lines:

The path to the altar is strewn with crushed hearts. . .. But no broken engagement between companies has proved quite so stunning as the one that befell Royal Caribbean International. It stood ready to seal a merger with P&O Princess Cruises before a congregation of investors. But then, rival suitor Carnival Cruise Lines swung in… Now, . . . P&O Princess has kissed off Royal Caribbean and is betrothed to Carnival.

That's typical of the way mergers and acquisitions are described nowadays, with a quiverful of words borrowed from the old language of courtship. In fact, the business pages are about the only place you can still find a lot of this language. The other day I looked up the first fifty hits for the word suitor from a Nexis database of major newspapers. Forty-eight of them involved business deals of one sort or another. One other came from the plot summary of a movie about King Arthur, and the last was from a palace gossip story about the rivals for Princess Di's affections after her separation, which is only marginally closer to real life than Camelot was. Suitor isn't a word that pops up a lot on "Sex and the City."

Or take the verb woo. You read about companies wooing investors, politicians wooing voters, and teams wooing fans. But lovers rarely talk about wooing anymore, except in fits of coyness or nostalgia -- "You don't suppose you could woo me a little first?"

That language has been receding for a long time. The word courting was already on the way out by the late nineteenth century, when people began to feel that the rituals of courtship were impediments to the candor that true affinity required. Anthony Trollope only put courting into the mouths of his lower-middle-class and lower-class characters, and within a few years it had become the stuff of rustic comedy. By the beginning of the twentieth century, people were taking up the new slang word dating, with its modern egalitarian syntax. Only men could be suitors or go courting, but women could date men as easily as the other way round.

But the language still feels right to describe corporate couplings, even if the rest of us have moved on from courtly love to Courtney Love. As that root "court" reminds us, the vocabulary of courtship has been always been drawn from the language of politics and influence, ever since it was cooked up by the twelfth-century nobles and poets who first laid down the codes of courtly love. And the words of courtship have always been charged with double meanings of power and sex. The verb court means both to pay amorous attention and to try to gain favor with someone. For that matter, favor has the same ambiguity between the meaning "good graces" and its sexual sense -- what people used to describe delicately as "the last favor," as in "she granted him the last favor." And until recent times, a "suitor" could be either a lover or a petitioner.

Those ambiguities are summed up in the underlying plea of all courtly attentions: be mine. That's what makes the language a natural fit for the corporate world, the only place left where you can realize your dynastic ambitions by getting someone to change their name to yours. The super-mergers that have built today's corporate giants recall the intricate maneuverings of an age when Catherine of Braganza could arrive in England for her marriage to Charles II with a trousseau bulging with two million crowns and large chunks of India and Morocco.

Even more to the point, the language of courtship has always involved a certain charade of power, as the suitor abases himself in order to gain the upper hand. Samuel Richardson observed that the gallantries always came down to the same message: "I am now, dear Madam, yr humble Servant: Pray be so good as to let me be yr Master." That's a fair paraphrase of the blandishments that companies like Tyco and WorldCom dangled before the companies they were acquiring, and in the end the stockholders wound up in pretty much the same compromised position as Richardson's Clarissa did.

In fact if there's travesty here, it isn't because corporate CEO's are any more devious or rapacious than the courtiers they replaced, but because they're a lot more banal. The ardent avowals of courtly love may have been disingenuous, but that's something poetry can be grateful for. Whereas the romance of the modern boardroom is pretty prosaic stuff, in every sense of the term. Imagine what Sidney or Marlowe would have had to come up with if they'd been corporate publicists spinning their companies' takeover bids:

Come merge with us, and we shall seize
A thousand win-win synergies.

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JWR contributor Geoffrey Nunberg is a Consulting Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University. The author of, most recently, "The Way We Talk Now," he also chairs the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Comment by clicking here.


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08/15/02: Who becomes a "legend" most?
07/18/02: Prefixed Out
06/13/02: Roil pain
04/11/02: The most influential man on corporate business language and image is 'spaced-out'
02/15/02: Cars and incantations
02/01/02: Hacking up our language
01/18/02: Rebirth of the Cool
01/11/02: The Last Post
01/04/02: Literal frustration
12/28/01: I Have Seen the Future, and It Blogs
12/21/01: An interjection for the age
12/14/01: Its own reward
12/07/01: Community sting
11/30/01: 100 Percent Solutions

© 2002, Geoffrey Nunberg