“Small People” Limited Time Offer

As an English or foreign language teacher I’d be all over the “small people” quote by BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg. It’s not going to be useful much longer so act now.


  • Should this comment make people mad?
  • What did he mean?
  • What should he have said?

It’s a beautiful entry to arguing about word choice, synonyms and nuance. In this case, one word really mattered quite a bit.

It might be fun things like have students reword famous quotes/sayings using synonyms to make them offensive or otherwise rob them of power.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
“A chopped up house, will fall down.”

Minnesota’s “Land of 10,000 lakes”
“Our state has a lot of standing water”

After you get them written, you could have them post them in some way and students could try to figure out what the original quote was.

Another bonus was I found that I could search MSNBC video by certain keywords- in this case, small people. It highlights those words in a transcript and shows the points in the time line where the words occur with colored dots for the video. A really nice way to quickly get where you want.

Comments on this post

  1. Mike Hasley said on June 21, 2010 at 7:21 am

    Was his error a translation error? I honestly don’t know. But that might be another way to look at it and look at other famous misspoken statements due to translation. Like the “jelly doughnut incident.”

    • Tom said on June 21, 2010 at 8:57 am


      In my opinion, that’s the point. It doesn’t matter if it’s a translation error. It’s actually a stronger argument if his intent was good. Nuance in language matters. Word choice matters. People often say “you know what I meant” and people could have taken his comment as a translation error but clearly they did not.

      I like the idea of looking at historical episodes where people misspoke or mis-translated. I’m not sure how easy it’d be to find the ones that matter. The Kennedy comment, while popular, has a number of people arguing it’s just an urban legend. There’s a ton of nuance involved in that statement plus some really interesting conversation around how language works, how stories are spread etc.

  2. ava said on August 20, 2010 at 11:19 am

    Really it was the attitude from the start with statements saying things like get back to my life that had people in a bad mood on top of the oil spill. By the time we use little people it is all over this guy appears to not care about others, only bottom lines and his own self.
    High profile people should choose words wisely.