Saturday, July 25, 2009

The many names for unemployment

It is an urban legend and somewhat of journalistic cliche that Eskimos have a large number of words for "snow." which somehow belies the importance of snow in Eskimo life. If this be the case, consider the number of words in our capitalist system related to moving from the state of employment to unemployment.

For starters, there is "losing one's job" (whoops, it was here a minute ago), as if it the poor unfortunate merely misplaced his livelihood. Then consider the personal violence inherent in the following: fired, discharged, axed, cut, given the boot, and of course, terminated.

British workers find themselves "sacked," and when collecting unemployment, they go "on the dole."

It's important to distinguish whether the separation was for cause (fired!) or merely bad business conditions (laid off).

Of particular interest is the term "given the pink slip" or more simply "pink-slipped." According to the New York Times, the earliest documented use of the term is 1910, and it refers to the supposed practice by some employers of putting a pink termination notice in an employee's pay envelope. Snopes.com, source of much debunking, states verifiable examples of this practice have "remained elusive," but mentioned a supposed practice of the Ford Motor Company:

    The "pink slip" has come a long way from when Henry Ford dreamed up a way to evaluate his assembly line employees. Each worker had a cubbyhole where at the end of the workday, a manager would place a piece of colored paper. A white piece of paper meant their work was acceptable, a pink one meant the boot.

Snopes further examines colorful dismissal notices, and suggests an alternative meaning for "pink."

    Other languages have also used terms for dismissals related to colorful paperwork — Germans would "get the blue letter" ("den blauen Brief bekommen"), and the French military dismissed personnel with a "yellow paper" ("cartouche jaune") — but perhaps the "pink slip" doesn't have anything to do with color at all. Consider that we often use terms relating to injury or violence to describe the severing of a relationship (e.g., a fired employee has "gotten the axe," a player who doesn't make the team is said to have been "cut"), and that when used as a verb, "pink" means "to pierce" or "to stab" (hence the item known as "pinking shears") or "to wound by criticism or ridicule."

Modern corporations have turned to euphemisms for the act of shedding employees, with the goal of making this seem like a sensible business decision. The earlier "down-sizing" has given way to the even more Orwellian "right-sizing." Taking a cue from the British term "made redundant" employers now speak of RIFs -- reductions in force.

Despite all the pretty words, it comes down to this: shit-canned is still shit-canned, no matter what you call it.

Next week I'll be finding out if this term applies to me.

2 comments:

Flee said...

I'm saying a few prayers that it doesn't, can't hurt.

Dr Ralph said...

In a lot of ways I'm better situated than many of my colleagues, but it never hurts to have friends in high places. Thanks!

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