Would you still purchase a "3-piece European-style outdoor bistro set" if you had to pay a "European-style value-added-tax" on it? This month in the Lounge we look at the changing fortunes of all things European.
Mr. Wentworth looked up at his daughter, who was standing beside him; he drew her gently forward. "You must be careful," he said. "You must keep watch. Indeed, we must all be careful. This is a great change; we are to be exposed to peculiar influences. I don't say they are bad. I don't judge them in advance. But they may perhaps make it necessary that we should exercise a great deal of wisdom and self-control. It will be a different tone."
—Henry James, The Europeans (1878)
The quote above occurs early on in Henry James' short comic novel The Europeans, at a point where the Wentworth family, of the landed New England gentry, have received an unexpected visit from theretofore unknown European cousins. Mr. Wentworth's advice to his daughter proves to be well conceived in the wake of the various plot turns that ensue. We've been thinking about Mr. Wentworth's advice lately, while observing the various manipulations that the adjective European and the compound adjective European-style have been subjected to: they have experienced a slow-motion semantic morph in recent times that should make anyone leery of underlying meanings whenever they are encountered.
To begin with: there is long-standing use of European and European-style in American English that has to do mainly with marketing and that should not be confused with the literal meaning of European (that is, "of or from Europe"). This usage is most pronounced in American English but may be found in some other English dialects outside the British Isles. It has no currency, however, in Britain itself: being only a stone's throw from Europe, and in many ways a part of it, Brits know better and would not be charmed by the product-enhancement sense of European.
European or European-style can prefixed to any consumer desirable to make it – in the eyes of its sellers, anyway – more desirable to American consumers. Take, for example, this contemporary display in a big box retailer not far from the Lounge:
In contexts like this, the adjectives seem to have traveled quite a distance from their literal meaning and it is doubtful that consumers expect this marketing sense of European to have any demonstrable connection with Europe. Otherwise, why would we have things preposterously described as European tanning beds or European-style kitchens? Is it really likely European engineers would have developed a tanning bed so superior that it was worth importing? Does a kitchen in Lisbon look enough like one in Lódz that their stylistic attributes can be generalized and marketed? To get the flavor of the genuineness of such attributions, go to a site like Overstock.com, a veritable thesaurus of consumer desirables, and search on European.
Among the items to spend your money on there are "Bacara Deluxe Black European Leather Laptop Case" (made in . . . China!) and "Turkish European Premier 6-piece Towel Set" (the cotton, they say, is Turkish. Is it rowed across the Bosporus for weaving?).
This sort of advertising is presumably a win-win for product promoters, regardless of which sort of American reads it. The minority of Americans who have visited Europe tend to view it as a vacation wonderland full of fascinating (if expensive) merchandise that will make just the right impression back home. The majority, who have not traveled to Europe, have been raised on the idea of Europe as a fount of everything enduringly valuable, sophisticated, fashionable and smart. Why settle for any old stroller when you can get a BeBeLove Deluxe European Travel Stroller?
A look at the Google News archive over the last decades shows consistently frequent use of European-style, but there has been an interesting development in the last few years. In 2003, the nouns likely to show up with European-style were connected with travel, design, and consumerism: bidet, baguette sandwich, kitchen, butter, country cottages, red-tile roofs, pilsner. Today, a look at European-style in Google News brings up different themes. Gone are the bidets and red-tile roofs of yesteryear. Now European-style is associated with value added tax, socialism, revenue-raiser, welfare state, consumption tax. Whence the shift?
There has been a perfect storm of circumstances in recent years to shift the connotations of European from delight to dread. First, the long debate preceding the recently passed healthcare reform legislation in the US provided an opportunity for raising numerous specters about socialized medicine, using various European systems as whipping boys. Along with this, the perceived socialist aspirations of the Obama administration and the Democratic party are frequently disfavorably compared to the worst European models by their critics. Take, for example, Newt Gingrich, speaking on the subject on Fox News in an interview with Greta van Susteren on April 13:
"They're going to drive everything they can through this year, take a beating this fall, if that's what is involved, but try to leave so much wreckage behind that they will have accomplished their goal of moving the country towards a European-style socialist welfare state model."
Now, as the European debt crisis limps along with no clear resolution in sight, it may seem that the charms of things European have either disappeared, or been indelibly tainted. What is a modern reader to think? Can you "stay in style with a European linen shoulder bag made exquisitely with the finest imported European linens" (that's verbatim from a catalog) while being aghast at the consumption tax that would be levied on it if bought at source? Could you bake in a European tanning bed while stewing about the socialist nightmares that dogs most people who use one?
It seems to us that the recent twist on the connotation of European and European-style works a lot like the old marketing sense. While the new one is intended to be entirely negative rather than positive, the new European-style capitalizes on ignorance: it relies almost entirely on vaguely-formed associations and on a "take my word for it" basis. Among the minority of Americans who have visited Europe, only a tiny fraction have spent enough time there to actually experience the socialist bugaboos that are raised before us as primary evils; few have the experience required to make an independent judgment about them, and we are no better able to know anything definitive about "European-style" economies and social services than we could, for example, know from looking at a picture in a catalog, that "this contemporary and fully functional stainless steel bench offers a European feel to any decor in your home." Modern users of English would do well to heed Mr. Wentworth's advice whenever they see reference to things European: keep watch, exercise a great deal of wisdom and self-control, and beware of peculiar influences!