Friday, October 13, 2017

Nicknames matter - the quiet change from "Rocket Man" to "Little Rocket Man"

We know that words matter, whether spoken, written, or even the unspoken ones.

Words matter so much that humans spend countless hours debating the "correct term" for something physical or abstract. Open any paper on a random page, including the sports section recently, and you find numerous examples. In case an article or opinion piece does not explicitly define or delimit terms and their meanings, you can be sure that the reader comments section will make up for it - unless the comments function is blocked, which in turn is an unspoken statement by the publisher.

For example, did the German governing Christian Democratic Party just agree with its Bavarian appendix Christian Social Union on a ceiling for refugees to be allowed into the country?

Well, they did agree on a recommended maximum number of refugees, allowing the Bavarian hardliners to claim victory while leaving the promise of "no ceiling" made by current and future Chancellor Merkel unbroken.

Some labels are less obviously damaging and require historians or economists to tease out the underlying reality. Take the chippy "gig economy" in all its independent glory and self-determination. As it turns out, pre-industrial work was very much like today's gig economy, and today's auto rickshaw drivers in India work in the same basic gig setup as the Uber or Lyft drivers. Minus the web company that funnels customers to them.

One of the common tools of the word fighter is nicknames and derogatory labels. An older example is the label "death tax" used by American conservatives for the estate tax.

The most in our face labels, very literally when you call an American president the Orange Thing, are nicknames attached to a specific person. All it takes is swapping out one word against another, like for the death tax, or adding a loaded adjective, as was done to stigmatize a candidate as Crooked Hillary. 

The more elaborate version removes the person and highlights one or more traits of the person, for example The Orange Thing. Readers in 2017 will easily recognize the person so labeled. "Thing" is, of course, a derogatory moniker, depersonalizing a human. 

In professions where brawn and heroism are common descriptors, mainly in law enforcement and the military, nicknames associated with a certain level of aggressiveness are a standard of praise. Take the example of James "Mad Dog" Mattis, general and US defense secretary. Mad Dog would probably not be considered praise if given as a nickname to, say, a librarian or a math teacher.

Sometimes, nicknames go wrong.

What happens next is a tribute to the power of nicknames and to the importance of quietly fixing a nickname gone wrong.

That's where Rocket Man comes in.

The nickname Rocket Man for the leader of North Korea burst onto the stage when US President Trump used it in a speech at the United Nations this September.

Rocket Man - the term, not the man - posed several problems in addition to reminding the older folks among us way too much of the Elton John hit (link to the official music video here). Fans of the song lyrics might well have been wondering if the president was doing a triple-meta-slam of Kim Jong Un by alluding to the song line "high as a kite".

To the blogster, the real issue with Rocket Man was that it missed its negativity target. Rocket Man has some positive connotations, and even the context of the speech could not make the positive vibe go away.

Within a week or so, the blunder was fixed: Rocket Man was replaced with Little Rocket Man throughout the media. "Little" put the North Korean leader in his place, thus rectifying the image.

Just for the sake of completeness, calling the North Korean strongman Rocket Man goes back to at least 2006, when the British Economist magazine featured Jong Un's father on the front page under the headline Rocket Man.

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