“The small people” = “den lilla människan”?

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BP’s chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg has been taken to task for a statement he made to reporters after a meeting with President Obama and other White House officials: “I hear comments sometimes that large oil companies are really companies that don’t care, but that is not the case in BP, we care about the small people.”

The Economist’s new language blog Johnson chalks up Svanberg’s unfortunate wording to his lack of fluency in English, suggesting that he “may have heard a venerable American phrase, ‘the little guy,’ and tried to use it, simply misremembering slightly.” On Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall speculates that “the small people” was the result of a “phrase in Swedish he might have been carrying over into English.”  And indeed, BP spokesman Toby Odone told the Associated Press that “it is clear that what he means is that he cares about local businesses and local people. This was a slip in translation.”

Around the blogosphere, Swedish speakers have further explained “the small people” as a translation of the phrase “den lilla människan.” There’s a bit of disagreement, however, about how condescending that phrase might be in Swedish.

In the comments on the Washington Post’s 44 blog, “kentnilsson8” writes:

I am Swedish and would easily make same mistake as Svanberg did. In Sweden we often talk about “den lilla människan” this translates to “the small human” in direct translation. However this is not insulting at all but is used as a tender name that express a humans vulerability to circumstances and events beyond their control. So, in this case it means the individual is small in the sense that when an ocean is suddenly filled with oil, one person can not do much by him or herself.

On Balloon Juice, we hear from “Thaswede”:

It was just an error in translation from his part.
He tried to translate a Swedish saying into English and it went wrong. In Sweden we often say “den lilla människan” (lit: “the little human”) when we talk about someone or a group of people who either is up against larger forces or odds, or simply have been unfortunate enough to be caught in the middle between (much) bigger and more powerful players/forces/events.

On the ABC News blog Political Punch, Martin Olsson pitches in:

I am a native speaking swede and in this context we would say “Den lilla människan”.
That translates directly into “small people”.
For us swedes, “den lilla människan” would refer to a person or group of people who are not in control of their own destiny and in need of help.

But on the same blog, Fredrik Andersson disagrees with Olsson’s interpretation:

What are you talking about? The Swedish phrase “den lilla människan” is just as demeaning in swedish as it is in english, “small people”. Stop representing us Swedes Martin! That is clearly a degrading comment in either language.

Josh Marshall sums up the moral of the story: “Given how bad a situation BP is in right now, I’m not sure it was a hot idea to have their non-native English speaking Chairman speak off the cuff in front of the TV cameras.”

(Hat tip, Danny Bloom.)



42 Comments

  1. Janne said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 5:24 am

    It’s true that “den lilla människan” could be used negatively. It carries strong connotations of individuals being unimportant to people in power, so you can use it to dismiss regular people. But normally it is used in the sense of standing on the side of the individual against larger forces, and it’s transparently clear that this was the intended meaning here.

    Note that this expression is frequently heard from the left side of the political spectrum in Sweden, to (somewhat disingenuously) invoke an image of standing up for Everyman against Big Capital or Big Industry. I suspect Fredrik Andersson may be a conservative and resents this political dimension to the expression. And of course, if BP is not Big Industry, nothing is.

  2. pjharvey said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 5:29 am

    It’s not really a case of using ‘the little/small people’ as a phrase by itself, as it was clearly contrasted against ‘large company’ in the original comment.

  3. Anders H. said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 5:50 am

    ‘den lilla människan’ is if interpreted by the letter in Swedish just as bad, but it is a saying with a total different meaning so Fredrik is wrong.
    It’s usually used by politicians in the sense they care about the poor, the not so fortunate, the elderly who can no longer take care of themselves etc. Stand up for ‘the little guy’ is probably the best translation I’ve seen yet. In Swedish it would make perfect sense to use the term ‘den lilla människan’ in this context as it was used.

    Funny though, the largest Swedish news-paper just declared that he should have said “little people” instead of “small people” – http://www.dn.se/nyheter/varlden/vadan-av-att-saga-lite-fel-vid-precis-fel-tillfalle-1.1123606

  4. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 6:00 am

    In German “der kleine Mann” means “the ordinary people”, “the man in the street” etc.

    Most people prefer to see themselves in this category rather than “die da oben” (literally “they up there”) which is about as friendly as “fat cats”.

  5. Anders Lotsson said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 6:04 am

    Whether “den lilla människan” is demeaning or not in Swedish depends on the context, and on the listener. The expression has been used by politicians about common people as opposed to politicians and big companies. But it’s inviting people to see themselves as powerless. I think it has become less common, but I have no statistics to back that up. There is also the expression “småfolket” (the little people), also used in the sense of “the common people”. However, that phrase is also used in folklore about goblins and the like, and if you think of that, it’s ridiculous. Of course, Svanberg did not intend to be demeaning, but that doesn’t matter. Right now, he is in a position where anything he does is too little too late.

  6. Orin Hargraves said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 6:36 am

    I think he meant the same folks that Leona Helmsley called “little people.”

    [(myl) More specifically, while Helmsley was on trial for tax evasion, a housekeeper testified to hearing her say “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”

    See “Maid testifies Helmsley denied paying taxes“, NYT 7/12/1089 ]

  7. Ray Girvan said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 6:38 am

    You know the score, pal. If you’re not cop, you’re little people.
    Blade Runner

  8. Jens said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 7:23 am

    In German “der kleine Mann” means “the ordinary people”, “the man in the street” etc.

    I would say that “den lilla människan” is the Swedish counterpart to that type of expressions.

  9. D said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 7:26 am

    Searching in the Språkbanken corpus, you’ll indeed find several references to “den lilla människan”. From Göteborgsposten (year unknown, can’t seem to find that information if it is indeed available):

    “Masten och strålningen innebär att det uppstår så kallade psykiska immissioner och då föreligger, enligt Mats Åberg en strikt skyldighet att betala skadestånd. De sex fastighetsägarna kräver mellan 70 000 kronor och 206 000 kronor i skadestånd på grund av vad de anser vara värdeminskning av fastigheterna. – Detta ger den lilla människan en chans mot storföretag och myndigheter som uppför master nära hus, förskolor och skolor, säger ombudet Niklas Odén”

    About the right to seek damages for value loss of your house when large corporations raise cellphone masts near your house. “This gives the small people (den lilla människan) a chance against big corporations and government…”

    So it sure has a non-condecending use in Swedish, although intuitively I would feel it is somewhat degrading. I think it might depend on who uses it to refer to whom. A corporate using “den lilla människan” may very well be interpreted just like Svanberg was here. I would say it feel rude when you use it in the sense “the small people, which sure doesn’t refer to ME, who is above you”

  10. Danny Bloom said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 7:38 am

    Ben, I originally found the quote on Balloon Juice a couple of hours ago. and then sent it on via twitter and Facebook, and your rewrite above is superb. I do think Carl Henri Svanberg meant it in a kind avuncular caring way, as the idiom in Sweden usually has it, but the way he put it in English was a tad bit off color, shall we say. He meant well, I am sure. He can’t say he was misquoted. All he can say, when it comes time to sit for pre-obituary interview with the New York Times morgue files, is: “I misquoted myself!” – C’est la vie.

    I, like hundreds of others “of a certain age” immediately thought of Randy Newman’s “Short People” song, so i took la liberte to rewrite the lyrics this way, and all in fun and jest but with a serious intent, which is to say we must tighten the noose around coal and oil ASAP. Like yesterday. Otherwise this will ensue: http://pcillu101.blogspot..com

    Here’s my take:

    http://zippy1300.blogspot.com/2010/06/bp-chairman-talks-about-small-people.html

    ”Small people” got no reason
    ”Small people” got no reason
    ”Small people” got no reason
    To want big answers from Carl-Henree
    Or even small answers from big Bee-Pee

    They got small hands
    Small eyes
    They walk around
    Tellin’ small kinds of lies
    They got small noses
    And small small teeth
    They wear oil-stained shoes
    On their oil-soaked feet

    Well, I don’t want no ”Small people”
    Don’t want no ”Small people”
    Don’t want no ”Small people”
    `Round here on my drillin’ rig

    ”Small people” got nobody
    ”Small people” got nobody
    ”Small people” got nobody
    to hear their pleas at BP – (please!)

    They got little small legs
    That stand so low
    On the oil-soaked beach
    Oh what they don’t know!
    They got small minds
    That go ”BP BP BP”
    They got small voices
    Goin’ ‘BP BP BP”
    They got small oily fingers
    And small oily minds
    They’re gonna get you every time

    Well, I don’t want no small people
    Don’t want no ”Small people”
    Don’t want no ”Small people”
    ‘Round here on my drillin’ rig….

  11. Alexa Steele said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 8:34 am

    When I heard this live I believed he was trying to use the English expression “the little people,” or “the little guy.” I was fascinated by the shade of meaning between “little” and “small” that changed his entire sentiment from endearing to condescending. No matter, this was a photo-op and everything that was said should be taken with a grain of salt anyway.

  12. George said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 8:53 am

    I heard a reporter suggest that what he meant was “the little guy.” It seems that we have accepted this formulation as an acceptable way to refer to people who non-elites.

    I cannot immediately think of a good alternative. As indicated in the response to his statement, a number of people find ‘small’ objectionable. I think the same objection might be found with ‘ordinary.’ The implication is that the speaker is distinguishing them self from the great unwashed.

  13. cameron said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 9:10 am

    Well, at least he didn’t translate the Swedish phrase as “puny humans” . . .

  14. Johan Winge said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 9:27 am

    One issue that I don’t think has been addressed is that Swedish has cognates for both small and little: “små” and “liten”, respectively. But the words have developed in such a way that “liten” is only used in the singular, while “små” functions as its plural form. This being so I would expect a general tendency for Swedes to transfer this distinction into English, and use “little” at the expense of “small” when referring to singular nouns, and vice versa. So he might have been aiming for “the little people”, but since “people” is semantically a plural noun, he subconsciously chose “small” instead.

  15. michael farris said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 9:28 am

    People hear weirder, less idiomatic constructions all the time and either manage to interpret them (or not) without the negative reations this has generated.

    I think a big problem here isn’t that what he said was badly phrased. It’s just that people are (understandably) so upset at BP that no matter what their chairman , native speaker of English or not, said, it was going to analysed in the worst, most negative light possible.

  16. Leonardo Boiko said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 10:27 am

    Clearly he’s trying to say that BP, being an eco-conscious company, cares a lot about elves, gnomes, dwarfes and other such smallfolk.

    But notice how he carefully avoids talking about nereids and merfolk.

  17. nonpoptheorist said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 10:52 am

    Another storm in a teacup for unforgiving native English speakers? I’m just glad they didn’t say, “small members.” That would have had me tittering about euphemisms all day long. I find myself frequently having discussions with non-native speakers about their recent social networking statuses. Anyone with routine contact understands it’s all par for the course. Whether they appear to be coming out of the closet, thanking people for the latest swingers party or professing their love for unsuspecting persons, it always leads to interesting discussions and shocked reactions, and retractions! Some people need to learn to make light of small errors, not tear into people for it, even if they are the current enemy of the people (and shrimp, birds, fish, turtles, wildlife, etc.)

  18. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 11:27 am

    What if he’d said “the little folk”?

  19. Peter Swenson said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 11:33 am

    This is more a problem of who said it, in what context, not what exactly was said. But that in combination with a clumsy translation made it all the more nuts. A powerful American corporate exec. talking about the “little guy” would probably be a PR goof in a context like this–a massive ecodisaster caused by his corporation, just as Svanberg going on in Swedish about caring for “den lilla ma:nniskan” to Swedes would not have been terribly bright after destroying its Baltic or Bothnian coasts.

    A direct translation of the Swedish “the little guy” would have been “the little person”. That may actually have saved Svanberg–a little, maybe. So he actually goofed the translation.

    “Small people” back to Swedish would be “smafolk”, and suggests gnomes and such.

    Danny Bloom — Thanks for the song. I had to look up the tune…listen to Randy Newman at
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NvgLkuEtkA&feature=related

  20. peter said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 11:55 am

    Irish writer Myles na gCopaleen used to speak of (and quote) The Plain People of Ireland. Australian politicians used to speak of The Little Aussie Battler, satirized by journalist Norman Gunston (aka actor Garry McDonald) refering to The Little Aussie Battleaxe.

  21. Rubrick said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

    I, for one, am glad BP is concerned about the welfare of hobbits.

  22. Fact Geek said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

    I strongly agree with michael farris, who said in his comment:

    “People hear weirder, less idiomatic constructions all the time and either manage to interpret them (or not) without the negative reations this has generated.

    “I think a big problem here isn’t that what he said was badly phrased. It’s just that people are (understandably) so upset at BP that no matter what their chairman , native speaker of English or not, said, it was going to analysed in the worst, most negative light possible.”

    This is exactly right, and BP appears to be almost totally unaware of how to deal with it.

    Peter Sandman, who describes “Risk” as equal to “hazard PLUS outrage,” wrote: “Why We’re Vilifying BP,” at: http://www.psandman.com/articles/deepwater3.htm

  23. marie-lucie said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

    In French there is a similar phrase les petites gens (sic)(which may be old-fashioned by now) which could have been used affectionately, but if used as a translation of the CEO’s words, would probably put off people who saw themselves identified not just as average but as having not only limited means but limited minds and horizons.

    (The plural word gens “people” is normally masculines, but in this old phrase and a few others it is feminine, as was the original Latin gentes “tribes, clans”. The other end of the social scale would be called by the same people la haute, from la haute société).

  24. marie-lucie said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

    The plural word … is normally masculine

  25. David said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

    Den lilla människan is singular, not plural, and it’s not a common expression. Seems implausisble to me.

  26. David said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 3:10 pm

    Presumably he would have said something more artful like that in Swedish, but I kind of suspect he’s still a condescending buffoon. Maybe disfluency made him reveal his true self?

  27. dieter said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 6:24 pm

    Austrian right wing populist Jörg Haider used the term “Der kleine Mann” (“the small/short man”) all the time. It was rather famously part of his brand recognition and he managed to snatch the traditional blue collar vote from the social democrats with this populist theme.

  28. Richard said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 7:27 pm

    In 1976, former senator Fred Harris sought the Democratic nomination for president of the United States, vowing to fight for the “little people” (against the big corporations, etc.). Alas, he did poorly in the New Hampshire primary, and he explained his defeat by saying, “I guess the little people weren’t tall enough to reach the voting levers. Maybe next time we should provide stools.”

  29. Danny Bloom said,

    June 17, 2010 @ 11:09 pm

    The alleged MTC does a choral arrangement of Randy Newman-tweaked Small People song here:

    http://coyoteprime-runningcauseicantfly.blogspot.com/2010/06/bps-ode-to-small-people.html

  30. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 18, 2010 @ 1:50 am

    Austrian right wing populist Jörg Haider used the term “Der kleine Mann”

    Dieter, as far as I know the expression dates much further back and may have been in use back in the monarchy.

    However, if the BP honchos had a fraction of Haider’s talent for selling themselves as the embodiment of the common people while living the millionaire lifestyle, their PR situation would certainly be better than it is.

  31. dieter said,

    June 18, 2010 @ 2:36 am

    Dieter, as far as I know the expression dates much further back and may have been in use back in the monarchy.

    He didn’t coin the phrase of course.

    However, if the BP honchos had a fraction of Haider’s talent for selling themselves as the embodiment of the common people while living the millionaire lifestyle, their PR situation would certainly be better than it is.

    Haider shied away from taking on responsibilities when push came to shove. If necessary, he tried to blame somebody else.

    So his tactics for BP would probably be to blame Halliburton or some other sub-contractor, or to fire a random subset of officials and haul ad hominem attacks on them.

  32. Vic said,

    June 18, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien of Canada referred to himself as “Le p’tit gar de Shawinigan” or the little guy from Shawinigan.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicknames_of_politicians_and_personalities_in_Quebec

  33. danny bloom said,

    June 19, 2010 @ 3:48 am

    I put the small people meme to music now here:

    http://www.last.fm/music/dan+e.+bloom/“small+people”+(tip+of+the+novelty+song+hat+to+Randy+Newman’s+”Short+People,”+of+course!

    and Mike and Amy, a comedy duo in Oregon, with their own radio show, did this musical song spoof:

    http://blogs.thewolfonline.com/mikeandamy/2010/06/18/bp-small-people-song/

  34. danny bloom said,

    June 19, 2010 @ 3:51 am

    http://zippy1300.blogspot.com/2010/06/bp-oil-spill-songs-informal-collection.html

    Better here above. Funny that Helene C Cooper was the Times reporter on the small people story because she is the person who made a terrible anti-French joke insult in her oped when a airplane crashed in Canada a few years ago and has never apologized for that. Funny, she can insult the French, as a Liberian, but the Swedes cannot insult the little people. Why is that, Helene?

  35. XavierL said,

    June 19, 2010 @ 7:16 am

    Here is the url of Helene Cooper’s OpEd referred to by danny bloom:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/06/opinion/06sat3.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=%22One+Flier%27s+Best+Friend+Is+the+Safety+Brochure%22&st=nyt.

    The “anti-French joke” is not hers; although she did report it. But what, precisely, is so terrible and insulting about it?

  36. XavierL said,

    June 19, 2010 @ 8:04 am

    David wrote: “Den lilla människan is singular”. Grammatically it is not singular, but it is used with a plural meaning, just like English “the little guy”. Look at this headline: BP Boycotts Hurt the Little Guy, written a week before Mr. Svanberg’s blooper. This while referring to “small business owners”. Hmm, “small”? How condescending!

  37. XavierL said,

    June 19, 2010 @ 8:05 am

    Oops, I meant of course “Grammatically it is singular”.

  38. danny bloom said,

    June 20, 2010 @ 2:32 am

    @XavierL: re “Helene Cooper’s OpEd referred to by danny bloom above:

    [The “anti-French joke” is not hers; although she did report it. But what, precisely, is so terrible and insulting about it?]

    True, XavierL, the joke belonged to her friend Shailagh, a fellow Liberian, and here is the text. Ms Cooper did not say it, her friend did, correct, but Ms Cooper reported it and the Times copy desk let it stand, and I don’t get the joke at all. Can you explain to me why it’s funny? re: “Everybody lived,” she wrote. “Probably because they were French.”

    Not everybody on that ill-fated plane was French at all. Where’s the joke and why are anti-French jokes allowed in the US media but not anti-Jew jokes or anti-African jokes or anti-lesbian jokes? Why is it okay for a black reporter at the Times to report a joke, a lame joke, about the French? But first, explain why or how it is funny or what her friend Shailagh meant? I have been trying to contact Ms Cooper for 5 years on this and she refuses every email I send her and even hung up o me one time when I called her DC office. What’s with that?

    TEXT of the joke part: by Helene C. Cooper, who by the way, is a wonderful writer and has written a great book about memories of Liberia, a gifted writer yes, but this? oi.

    My friend Shailagh is my volunteer therapist on this, because she’s scared of flying, too. We call each other before our flights so whoever is not flying can console the other one.

    The conversations are always the same. “I’m freaking out,” one of us will say. “What airport are you at?” the other will ask, then come up with some lame reason why no planes from that airport will crash that day.

    As soon as I saw the news footage of the Air France crackup in Toronto on Tuesday, I sent e-mail to Shailagh.

    “Did you see what happened? And I have to fly to Atlanta tomorrow.” She’s on vacation in Nevada, but she still replied in 10 minutes flat, pointing out the positive outcome.

    “Everybody lived,” she wrote. “Probably because they were French.”

    Nope, I thought, shaking my head as I read her e-mail. Those people looked at their safety brochures.

    QUESTION XL: why would everyone live because they are French? what on Earth does that mean? that French people never die in air crashes or what?

    Maybe I am just thick in the head on this one…..

  39. Christer, native Swedish speaker, said,

    June 20, 2010 @ 5:17 am

    The phrase “den lilla människan” is typically not demeaning and could in this context be translated as “the little guy” or “everyday people.” If used by a BP bigwig, however, all three phrases ring equally false to me.

  40. danny bloom said,

    June 20, 2010 @ 8:34 am

    Btw, shouldn’t chairman here be lowercase? I noticed a lot of people don’t know their lowercases from their uppercases. Josh, are You reading This?

    RE: last graf of Ben’s post: *

    Josh Marshall sums up the moral of the story: “Given how bad a situation BP is in right now, I’m not sure it was a hot idea to have their non-native English speaking *Chairman* speak off the cuff in front of the TV cameras.”

    Isn’t there a rule about this?

  41. Lukman Jahja said,

    July 27, 2010 @ 11:05 pm

    Native or non native speakers, this guy represents what BP stands for at the moment….they “care about the little people”….careful, don’t step on the ants when you walk….

  42. C said,

    November 22, 2012 @ 2:04 am

    The phrase “the little people like you and me” has 739 000 hits on google.

    Look at 1,28 min into “National Lampoons – Christmas vacasion”, the boss uses the phrase “the little people”.

    I never understood why they made such a big deal out of this. And certainly not why they drag the swedish translation into it. Its already a common expression in english that he just misused a little perhaps, but you dont need to know swedish to understand why he did it.

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