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Verbal energy: Are you being underserved?

Some thoughts on the vocabulary of poverty and personal service.

By Ruth Walker / April 18, 2008



We have the poor always with us. But we're never quite sure what to call them. Lack of material wealth, aka poverty, is one of those human conditions for which well-meaning people are perpetually in search of new euphemisms. They find one, and then as soon as everyone figures out what it actually means, it has to be replaced.

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Last week, in a piece I was reviewing, I ran across a reference to "underserved kids" taking part in art classes run by a charitable organization. I pondered my responsibility to hold the line on euphemism and decided to excise the adjective. It was clear from context that the kids in question needed some help.

I didn't quite get underserved when I first ran across it, I have to confess. For one thing, it looks like un-deserved – and may sound like it, too, in parts of the country where r's disappeah.

For another thing, underserved also reminded me of "underretailed," a term I ran across some time in the early 1980s, as the marble-trimmed Copley Place shopping center was under construction in Boston. Some market analyst was quoted as saying that, up till that point, our fair city had been "seriously underretailed." We didn't have enough places to spend our money, in other words. This was the great void that Neiman Marcus and other shops going in were meant to fill.

To refer to the adequacy of public services in a community, underserved makes a certain amount of sense: "This part of the city is seriously underserved by the public library system." But "underserved kids" sounds as if someone is trying too hard. Would that more people did see serving the poor as an "opportunity," if not quite a "market opportunity" in the usual sense!

The United States is supposedly a service economy nowadays – at least when we can get our planes in the air and when our brokers return our calls. But our vocabulary of service is all over the lot.

Server has caught on as the equal-opportunity successor to waiter/waitress, sparing us "waitron" and other neologisms.

And then there's server in the computer sense – a file server. My morning boot-up drill used to include a process called mounting a server on my desktop – bringing up a little icon of a (highly stylized) servant bearing a platter of the kind also known as a server.

However, I was reminded just how quaint servant has come to sound, outside the context of "public servant," a few weeks ago when I was working on an article that contained a reference, in a non-US setting, to someone's "servant boy." A collaborator took issue with the phrase, and so it came out; the boy's employment status wasn't critical.

In an earlier era the lad might have been called a "houseboy." I learned that word from the old sitcom "Bachelor Father" (1957-62), in which glamorous Beverly Hills lawyer Bentley Gregg (John Forsythe) had a "houseboy," played by the Chinese-American actor Sammee Tong, who was then well into his 50s. Hmm, "boy"? And he was "inscrutable," too.

An earlier sitcom, "The Stu Erwin Show," about a bumbling (white) high school principal and his family, featured Willie, an African-American who was their full-time "handyman." The show drew on traditional types but was known for having generally progressive attitudes toward race. I recall a scene in which Erwin, explaining Willie's role, says, "He is the governor in my home."

Hmm. Governor? Sounds like a pretty big job. I knew there was a "governor" in Sacramento, but I also knew that "governess" was a type of servant. Was there an irony there my childish ear missed? The servant who is smarter than his master has been a staple of comedy forever, and this show was part of that tradition. Willie was "just" a servant – but he "governed" the home, not unlike the inscrutable "houseboy." No small job. And neither household was underserved.

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