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!


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday June 1st 2010, 5:10 AM
Comment by: José O.
I would like to start my comment to this text by apologizing for my (surely) not very good use of the English language. You see, I am Portuguese (and therefore, European), which means that English is not my native language. Writing a comment for the Visual Thesaurus community to read is therefore quite daunting!

I quite enjoyed the text, which gave me a feel of how Europe is being looked at, from across the Atlantic. I sometimes felt uncomfortable while reading the text, because my perspective is obviously different: it's an "inside" perspective, built in my DNA by my own cultural background and set of values. But that is a good thing: that's the kind of feeling that helps us move forward. So, thank you for that.

Nevertheless, while reading the text, I couldn't help wondering whether the author and I (and I dare say, a fairly large proportion of the European population) would have the same understanding of the word "socialist", which is used profusely in the text. In my opinion, it is a very "charged" word, which may have quite different connotations depending on which side of the Atlantic you are in, and also across Europe. So, my comment is more of a suggestion: why not write an article on the word "socialist" and its different connotations?
Tuesday June 1st 2010, 6:42 AM
Comment by: Basilisksam (Derby United Kingdom)
Interesting article - but speaking as a European I wonder what the view from here would be. I've not researched it but my guess is that American or American-style used in adverts here would carry certain connotations. For instance we tend to associate American with bigger - an American-style meal or American-style car would be much bigger than its European counterpart. The negative connotations in Europe would be that American or American-style goods would be excessive and wasteful of natural resources.

I'm not saying that I personally agree with these ideas but it works both ways. Just as Americans may think socialist-inspired goods and services are suspect, Europeans may think that American goods and services are wasteful.
Tuesday June 1st 2010, 8:49 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Yes, there are connotations with each word, European and American, and differences in interpretations of the word 'socialist' and what it means politically even within America.

I was born there, have lived most of my life in Canada. We have an in-between-sort of idea here, part 'wild west/let me do it myself' and part 'let the government do it'.

Many Americans, but maybe not at this site, view socialism with suspicion. Remember, the US was founded by people getting away from European governments.

I think the independent way of looking at doing things is perhaps now lodged in the DNA of those of us born there, and that's what the present administration is finding -- put in a very limited fashion. It's really quite complicated.

There's another 'loaded' term, however, that plays into current US politics, one I'm very familiar with: Chicago-style politics. When I was asked awhile ago, before the last presidential election, what I thought Obama would be like if elected, I said, "I'll have to see how much Chicago style comes along, and which of the Chicago folks come with him.

Now I know. LOL

All my relatives are there, and I keep them pretty clear on their the popular misconceptions about Canada.

I have a great group (small, but very open) friends from aEurope, courtesy of a small private forum, and we compare notes on taxes, expectations, elections etc. so I do have a notion of what means what where, in addition to what I got from my four years of studying poly Sci at the University of Michigan back in the 50s.

We don't have the cradel to grave care that is associated with Europe. On the other hand, there is little mention here or in the US media of the co-existence of private and public health care in Europe. Except for some supplemental insurance, we do not have that here.

We do not have the centralized system that the US will get either.

Hybrids, we are.

I think comparing notes, ways of thinking, and what the words mean in a gentle way (as has been done) is a very good thing!

My bones and nuscles are rebelling at the hybrid cars, something we associate with European 'small and gas efficient'. My hustand, born in France, even more so. We like those big wasteful comfortable roomy Fords! LOL

Needs are different. I need a cushioned car for Winnipeg's roads (eventually the holes might level out!)

One note: Recently just 'for fun', I toltalled up our taxes, the money that goes for our health care, education, defense and so on. I've included property tax, sales tax (VAT), provincial and federal income tax. It came to a bit under 35%. And we have a good income. So we are not over-taxed, though like everyone, we complain bitterly!

One thing I would welcome, a 3% tax dedicated to rebuilding our roads and highways in the province, especially within the city!

We are both great admirerers of the European rail system, but here, road beds for that are difficult to maitain. There is so much roadway, so few people!

The US is better able to manage that, but the car still rules!

Interesting article, thought provoking. But there is no reason for hard feelings. Newt may be right for the time being, more right than wrong. November will tell a tale over here.

That doesn't mean that we don't love and our European relatives and friends, and admire much of their way. We are the youngsters, and must try our wings.

I apologize for the typos. The box is jumping, telling me the post is too long! LOL
Tuesday June 1st 2010, 9:57 AM
Comment by: Valerie P.
European-style used to mean luxury and good taste for those who could afford it, but I was surprised when I lived in France to see how simply many/most Europeans lived.

Now that many Americans (I am Canadian) associate "socialism" with Europe and sometimes with Canada too, I believe it is just another attempt to persuade the majority of Americans who have never spent any time outside of their country that their welfare is what the American elite (the rich and powerful) say it is. Therefore, buy these overpriced "European-style" goods, but don't buy their philosophy of "socialism"; whatever makes us rich is good for everyone!
Tuesday June 1st 2010, 11:35 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Valerie, every kitchen I was in in France was the opposite of what one was supposed to believe was 'European style'. They were simple, downright old-fashioned compared to North America.

My mother-in-law got her first refrigerator in the 1970s. Not because they couldn't have afforded it. One just wasn't necessary.

What she had was what we'd known in our trips to the cabin at the lake, an ice-chest. Even that was small.

And so much of the day was spent in the kitchen there!

I now think of European style kitchens as being small and thin, minimal. I was surprised to learn from a friend who still makes frequent visits to France that the French are gadget-minded.

For anyone living there... Do you find that so?

What surprises me about European living is houses, apartments, whatever... without screens. And it's certainly not due to a lack of bugs! LOL
Tuesday June 1st 2010, 12:19 PM
Comment by: Johnny K. (Avenches Switzerland)
From Jane B "Many Americans, but maybe not at this site, view socialism with suspicion. Remember, the US was founded by people getting away from European governments."

Sorry Jane - America was founded by Europeans escaping persecution from the Roman Catholic church (although this is beyond the scope of this conversation).

I carry an American Passport (and a Swiss one), was born in Germany of an American father (in the forces) and an English mother. I've lived about 15 years in the USA and served almost 8 years in its armed forces.

I've spent the majority of my life in Europe, the last 15 in Switzerland and France - therefore I am somewhat qualified to comment on the opinions of a particular type of expatriate.

From the written word standpoint, America has excelled in abuse and ambiguity of the English language. This stems mainly from the advertising/marketing fluff that is poured out in large helpings to the citizenry each day - in this arena spelling, grammar and syntax take back seat to cool-sounding made-up words, acronyms and text smileys. I believe this began in the 1940s with the advent of television commercials and the destruction of the language has not looked back since.

I am the Editor for an international magazine read in 183 countries - I receive text and articles from around the world. The worst English-language writers are the Americans. Even their advertisements must often be returned for corrections.

Your article references the allure of all things European. It is true that most Americans are unaware of the taxes and red tape most countries' citizens must endure. Personally, I am paid in Swiss francs but live on the Euro standard in France - depletion of finances could not have an uglier face.

The French healthcare system, once you bypass the doctor's insistence to prescribe for every small ailment, is one of the best I've seen. Even the Swiss could learn from this system. But the taxes are horrendous. When Americans were complaining that the price of petrol bypassed $2.00, I was paying almost $8.00 - the norm is around $6.50 to $7.00.

It's the green grass on the other side of the fence syndrome, which works both ways.
Tuesday June 1st 2010, 12:27 PM
Comment by: Johnny K. (Avenches Switzerland)
OK Jane - now I'm on your side ;-)

Kitchens are minimalist in France, at least here in the southwest. The French (here) ARE gadget minded to a point, and window and door screens do not exist (except in my house).

Most people with whom I associate will 'invite' bugs out of their home, instead of spraying something on or swatting it. Still. . . the summers are always interesting ;-)

The bidet is also going out of style here - most new-builds will automatically include one but often people just take them out later. Italian-style showers are very common too.
Tuesday June 1st 2010, 1:12 PM
Comment by: Marco P.
Sorry JohnnyK, America was not founded by people escaping persecution from the Roman Catholic Church. Puritans came from England, and their beef was with the Church of England. (They believed that the English Reformation did not go far enough.)
Tuesday June 1st 2010, 1:49 PM
Comment by: Carl B. (Winter Park, CO)
@johnnyk: What's an "Italian-style shower"?
Tuesday June 1st 2010, 11:22 PM
Comment by: Anthony C. (North Bergen, NJ)
As a young jazz musician I was invited to blow at a jam session way up in harlem. It was an invigorating, happy, hand clapping crowd and I blew my little heart out. When i got off the crowded stage i was rather pleased with myself until one of the swingers slapped me on the back and said,"Man, you is Bad!" Say what! Bad? Oh,man...my heart was snapped like a broken reed. He saw my disconsulate look and said,"Man,why do you look so sad.?" His friend said,"I know why the kid is down...he thinks bad is bad!" He looked at me and said,"Kid, get hip...don't you know that bad is good...that's right...good...and you is the baddest cat in town!"
Wednesday June 2nd 2010, 10:22 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Ah, good comment, Anthony! Trying to keep us on the topic, are you?

Now, JohnnyK, I'm relieved that someone else commented on the 'founding' bit.

Let me heap praise on the French health care system. My step-father-in-law (oh, how I sometimes regret my dearly beloved's complicated family!) had marvellous, almost instant, care. He was able to stay independent until well into his 90s. And, at the drop of a word, he could have his doctor at his bedside at home. (I don't know if this was friendship or a part of his private coverage, however.) He had excellent care in hospital when needed.

He did pay a whole lot of tax.

Our doctor too is ready to prescribe a pill for every complaint. We see an alternative practioner (is that a euphemism?) who frees us from most of these, but he is reasonably accessible to us. Hospital waits are still long, ER waits very long. Taking an ambulance speeds things up, but is expensive without insurance.

Note: This is just my province. Things are different elsewhere.

I find our tax reasonable now that I've added it all up. It doesn't seem like much at all.

We pay about the same per gallon (if we still used that measurement) as in the US, our dollars are close in value. However, complaints about the cost of gas abound! If we still had our car, our taxes would probably be a higher percentage of income.

I do not understand the lack of screens. I know my French in-laws hated mosquitoes. Being trapped in a cabin over here with them, and my husband, one night when we were hosts to one lone mosquito, was all I needed to teach me how much they disliked them. They swatted, all three against the one biter. I felt sorry for the poor mosquito! But that was way before the Nile Virus invasion.

My memories of European 'facilities' are also, well... outstanding.. rife with confusion. Do I dare go behind a door that says 'abort'? It did have what I needed -- urgently. I added 'abort' to my list of necessary words when travelling in Europe.

My in-laws apartment seemed to be half bathroom. Each of them had one, and there was one facility that could be shared. I never did sort it all out!

I had learned not to scream in the car by the time I was attacked by a huge bug while we were driving (my husband was driving) across a bridge in Saumur. A giant bug. Really big. Bigger than that wee mosquito that had bothered everyone one night at a lake.

My husband identified it, I don't remember its name, and got it out once we were across the bridge and could stop.

I sat paralyzed with fear, and that night I dreamed of windows with screens and rooms to sleep in where the lights could be turned on after dark with the windows open...
Thursday June 3rd 2010, 2:14 PM
Comment by: Henryk W. (Roedovre Denmark)
Orin, what insightful observations on a semantic slide. Looking very much forward to the next helping.

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