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Aam aadmi and the Average Joe: names that signify group identity

Aam aadmi and the Average Joe: names that signify group identity
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First Published: Sun, Mar 14 2010. 10 33 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Mar 14 2010. 10 33 PM IST
In the days following the presentation of Budget 2010, everybody started talking about the aam aadmi. Critics from the Left said, “It is an aam aadmi budget against the aam aadmi.” Union ministers claimed that the aam aadmi was the centrepiece of the Budget. The Bharatiya Janata Party wanted to “censure the government on its anti-people, anti-aam aadmi politics”. When making such statements, it is necessary to first define the term precisely. Is the aam aadmi a political entity or a sociological one? Or is it another name for people below the poverty line?
Aam aadmi is a translation of the phrase “the common man”. In US history, the presidency of Andrew Jackson is regarded as the era of the rise of the common man. Jackson saw himself as a man of the people and believed in empowering the common man.
Sixty years ago, India’s best known cartoonist R.K. Laxman created a character called “the Common Man”, representing one aspect of India’s aam aadmi. “He symbolizes the mute millions of India, or perhaps the whole world, a silent spectator of marching time,” said Laxman about his creation. The cartoons portray the ups and downs in the Common Man’s life, and the artist is amused as much as he is annoyed by what happens around him. At the Symbiosis Institute in Pune, there is a bronze statue of the Common Man of the cartoons.
Aam aadmi has its equivalent in American and British English. The nearest is probably the “Average Joe”. The factors that define this person are his age, income, education, family and employment. Another term often used today to stand for the common man is John Doe. The word originated in England in the 14th century. A person who was dispossessed of his land would bring an ejection suit to recover his land; in the suit he would use hypothetical names such as John Doe and Richard Roe to stand for the plaintiff and defendant. “Doe” and “Roe” are not common surnames and so it was safe to use them. Women in such legal action were called Jane Doe or Jane Roe. The use of dummy names in land ownership cases is now not called for; still, names like John Doe and Jane Doe are used when it is necessary to conceal a person’s identity or to supply a place-holder when the identity is not known. Law enforcement officers and hospital administrators have recourse to such use.
One cannot but mention Joe the Plumber in this context. His real name was Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher. For a brief while, he was a star of the American presidential debate. He seemed to speak for the entire working class of the US when he questioned then presidential candidate Barack Obama about his tax policy on small businesses. Obama’s opponents John McCain and Sarah Palin saw their opportunity there. They thanked Joe for making Obama spell out his tax plans. In the final presidential debate, McCain invoked Joe the Plumber’s name more than 20 times. With the intensive media coverage of his interviews, Joe became a representative of the average citizen cherishing the great American dream. The sequel to the story turned out to be not so dramatic. Joe was not a licensed plumber; his name was Samuel, not Joe; he owed the state of Ohio more than $1,000 in taxes.
Another section of society that makes a claim on local resources is designated by the label “sons of the soil”. Such groups are active in some of the states of India, exposing a conflict of interest between the local population and migrants. Malaysia adopted a similar term, bumiputera or bumiputra, a translation of the Sanskrit “bhoomi”, earth, and “putra”, son. There are different definitions of bumiputra in Malaysia, depending on the region an individual belongs to. Article 153 of the Constitution of Malaysia calls upon the head of state to safeguard the special position of the Malay and other indigenous peoples of the country.
There are some terms that designate particular groups in terms of their financial concerns and activities. The world of business in Japan has given rise to two interesting names. One of these, “Japanese salaryman” (pronounced “sarariman”), refers to the white-collar worker in Japan who takes the daily train to his office in metropolitan Tokyo, puts his work at the office at the centre of his life, obeys orders, and bonds well with co-workers. It is a watered-down version of a “yuppie”. In the years following World War II, becoming a salaryman was considered a gateway to success in one’s career, and a distinctive lifestyle developed around the character of the salaryman.
The charm of being a salaryman did not last, however. In modern use, the word has negative connotations, and involves long working hours, a lack of recognition and low prestige. They were often called shachiku (corporate livestock).
They reacted in one of two ways. Some of them escaped the beaten path of a corporate career and tried to find a new occupation. This act of moving away from a corporate career and finding a fulfilling profession is called datsusara. Some who could not make this transition fell into depression. The word “karoshi”, which has now entered English dictionaries, refers to “death from overwork”. In 1982, a team of Japanese doctors wrote a book titled Karoshi, and noted that many young men in good health, who worked more than 60 hours a week, died because of stress at their jobs.
Another Japanese term designating an identifiable group is “Mrs Watanabe”. The name is a metaphor for Japanese housewives who came on the scene as currency exchange speculators around 2000 and started what came to be known infamously as the carry trade. That was the time when they could borrow Japanese currency at minuscule interest rates. This money was used to buy assets in countries offering higher rates. The bulletin of the Reserve Bank of Australia defines carry trade as “borrowing money in a low-yielding currency and investing in a high-yielding currency”, or, in business jargon, “taking a leveraged position on the interest differential between two markets”.
The Watanabe carry trade flourished from 2000 to 2007. Housewives, retail investors and pensioners joined the hunt. Then came the credit crisis that rocked the world. Many of these speculators saw their savings being wiped out. Having burnt her fingers, Mrs Watanabe has now started looking for safe havens.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column. Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Mar 14 2010. 10 33 PM IST