Verbal Energy

A new pride of 'ownership'?

Martha Coakley's Senate loss and the Toyota recalls illustrate a vogue term for accepting responsibility.

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Martha Coakley's loss of a US Senate seat that had been Democratic since before most of us were born has prompted all manner of analysis of what it means for American politics.

I'd like to consider what it means as an example of the language of "ownership."

"I own it" was the verbal leitmotif throughout Ms. Coakley's postelection interviews. The Boston Herald quoted her as saying of her failed bid, "I own this. This is my responsibility."

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According to The Boston Globe, she said, "I appreciate that this is tough for everybody who wanted me to win. I own that. My campaign owns it." And I heard similar language from her in an interview with radio station WBUR.

President Obama used some of the same words last September on the CBS program "60 Minutes." The topic was the state of his health insurance reform efforts, after a long summer of angry town-hall meetings. The Politico.com headline was "President Obama on health bill: 'I own it.' "

Some years back, "ownership" figured into the so-called Pottery Barn rule of foreign policy. It's a concept former US Secretary of State Colin Powell seems to have picked up from Thomas Friedman, the phrasemaking New York Times columnist: "If you break it, you own it."

The idea was that if the United States toppled Saddam Hussein's government, Iraq's problems would become American problems. The metaphor cast Iraq as a damaged piece of terra cotta one has been forced to pay for but can't find a good use for.

Pottery Barn does not actually follow the Pottery Barn rule. But as a rhetorical device, the rule worked to cast an almost undefinable problem into down-to-earth terms. Who, after all, among the foreign-policy-attuned American public can't identify with shopping at Pottery Barn?

To speak in terms of "ownership" combines acceptance of responsibility with the assertion of control. This is true with regard to the woes at Toyota. The Japanese automaker, whose name has long been a byword for quality, has been thrown into disarray because of some serious safety issues.

By suspending sales and shutting down production plants, "Toyota now hopes to show that it is taking ownership of the issue and is acting in the best interest of its customers," as one writer put it.

Accepting responsibility for something tends to deprive your adversaries of a stick to beat you with. After all, it's bad form to keep harping on someone who has apologized. "I own it" means, among other things, "Lay off already."

Thus Coakley described herself as "heartbroken" after her defeat. But, at least to veteran Herald columnist Margery Eagan, she seemed not to be "defeated, distraught, betrayed nor overly apologetic" in a postelection interview.

Ownership tends to sound more concrete than "responsibility," especially where "accepting responsibility" doesn't necessarily suggest anyone's resignation. Taking ownership: Can't you just hear the clank of keys set down on the broker's desk, the whoosh of papers being slid up and down the lawyer's conference table for the affixing of signatures?

Arguably this use of ownership is an example of the sort of verbal fad that ticks off word nerds like me. But it's got to be a good thing for people to find ways to accept responsibility for their actions – even if they retain some privileges of ownership, too.

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