Words on the loose: The power of “premium”

Blog post written by Crispin Thurlow based on a new article published in Language in Society


In a new paper for Language in Society, I open with the following anecdote about the disingenuous power of everyday language games. On a work trip to Stockholm several years ago, I needed to take my two sons along with me. My local colleagues had kindly accommodated us in one of Sweden’s “Elite” hotels. On arrival day, my sons and I checked in and made our way up to the room. As we stepped across the threshold my oldest son declared, with genuine disappointment, “But this isn’t elite!” After I pressed him, he explained that the room was just not big enough. Evidently, he had already learned about the well-established link between space, privilege and the performance of status. And, in that moment, he was also learning two truths about language: words do not carry meaning, but words really do matter.

Against this domestic backdrop, I undertake an extensive critique of another floating signifier at work in the world today: “premium”. Attached to any number of goods or services, this ubiquitous label is an apparent effort to persuade people into an easy sense of distinction. My own collected examples include chocolates, beer, clothing, haircuts, towelling, potato chips, olives, crab cakes and tomatoes. The power of “premium” is at its most vivid, however, in the elaborately orchestrated rhetorics of so-called Premium Economy. Here we have not the sorting of tomatoes but rather the sorting of people. Arguably the most profitable of passenger classes, this is also where language comes to the fore. In an industry where profit margins are slim, one of the cheapest resources available to airlines – the one with the lowest fossil-fuel burn – is words. Words are precisely how airlines fabricate a “class” of passengers tangibly but not too visibly distinct from Economy, while steering clear of the more prestigious (and expensive) Business.

In teasing apart the copious and florid marketing copy of over forty international airlines, I have pin-pointed three common strategies which underpin this in-between passenger service. The first is extraction (of money and of other people’s comfort) and the second is excess (of words and other largely immaterial performances of plenty). Perhaps most important of all, however, Premium Economy rests on a core grammatical feature and a related social-psychological phenomenon: comparison. Airlines can only profitably afford to offer “extra” and “more” – as in the words of one airline, “More comfort, more choice, more privileges”. All of which hinges on the human predeliction for downward comparison – or, in the case of airplane seating configurations, backwards comparison. And it works, as behavioural economists attest. Simply knowing that others are worse off makes people feel better about themselves and more willing to part with their money.

In the final reckoning, I have come to understand “premium” to be a prime example of Bourdieu’s symbolic power. For all its seemingly frivolous, innocuous appearance, this little word is deployed – and quite successfully it seems – as a means for controlling people through seduction and enchantment. In fact, and following the impressive interventions of critical economist Frédéric Lordon, I propose that the “humble joy” of having a little extra or a little more – of being just a little bit better than the rest – is partly how members of the aspirational middle classes make themselves compliant to the capitalist order. As such, “premium” promises just enough to keep me striving willingly for my own subjugation.

Read the article Dissecting the Language of Elitism: The ‘Joyful’ Violence of Premium published in Language in Society.

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