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Wearing the Big Hat

Complain as you wish about corporate jargon: when my wife (who works in a corporate setting) brings home juicy phrases, I find them entertaining. Also kind of sad, but not for the reasons you’d expect. I’ll mention two. The one she’s used in actual conversations with me is “to be the long pole in the tent,” which refers to the person or organization that plays a key role in a project. (Note, she’s never used it to refer to me.)

The other one, which I heard for the first time this weekend at the company party, is “to wear the big hat,” which I guess refers to a person who takes responsibility, looks out for other people, and directs them, but isn’t necessarily a formal leader. (In a more horizontal organization, the person who wears the big hat is the visible one?)

What’s sad about these corporate idioms is the nostalgia for a lost world of work they evoke. Not only is it a manly world, it’s a world before information economies, a place where people used tents, poles, hats, and other apparatus of industry and agriculture. There’s no going back – and the fact of the matter is, most of us wouldn’t want to work where our great grandfathers and grandmothers did. (Spend time in Mexico, however, and you’ll see that world of hard physical work so present it seems nearly absurd. Most of us wouldn’t want to work there, either.)

That doesn’t mean we can’t jack around with idioms that harken to that age, though. I think my wife should introduce idioms that play on the work nostalgia but are, actually, meaningless. For example, admiring someone as “the widest pulley in the rigging.” Or criticizing someone for “sucking the hemp out of the rope.”