President Putin has had a clever idea. He’s changed the definition of the word champagne. In Russia, anyway. This is a fascinating use of the unique position he’s in as a fairly elected democratic leader. (He’s also changed the definition of “fairly elected democratic leader”.)
Not many politicians have the power just to declare that a word which has always meant one thing now means another – that sort of thing is usually the preserve of social media. But, if you can get away with it, why wouldn’t you do it? Champagne has positive connotations – why allow them to be frittered away on anything you don’t personally control?
So what has Putin said champagne now means? The fizzy feeling of justice as you’re rightly arrested for publishing something seditious? The email you get from your bank confirming you’ve just successfully sent a few billion roubles to Switzerland? Cabbage soup? (I’ve now run out of stereotypes.) Well, he’s actually played it relatively safe and gone for Russian sparkling wine. The Kremlin has decreed that, from now on, only wine produced in Russia may be sold as “shampanskoye”, the Russian word for champagne.
This means that, until the next Russian annexation of northern France, there are precisely no parts of the world that everyone agrees have the right to use the world’s most famous fizzy booze label. This situation is further complicated by the fact that the area where a lot of the Russian champagne is likely to come from, Crimea, is only Russian according to Russia. According to the UN, it’s Ukrainian. If the UN got its way, would Putin think the Crimean fizz would cease to be champagne? He wouldn’t want accidentally to bequeath Ukraine the world’s most illustrious wine region.
Maybe everyone needs to come together and pick a neutral location that isn’t in France, Russia or Ukraine: perhaps the village of Stilton in Cambridgeshire? It would be nice to throw it a bone since it’s strangely not allowed to produce the famous cheese that’s named after it. Stilton currently has to be made in Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire or Derbyshire – so there’d be something pleasing about champagne having to be made in Stilton. Would the Stiltonians have a go at making wine or would champagne simply become the name, going forward, of a Cambridgeshire cheese? That would certainly have an aesthetic and olfactory impact on the next Formula One podium.
I can’t see Putin going for it, though. He wants champagne for himself (not to drink – I suspect he prefers northern French sparkling wine) and, who knows, may have already earmarked stilton as the new name for a rancid Caucasian sheep’s curd. Lovely with a glass of port, the finest fortified wine of the Omsk region (may cause blindness).
This all got me thinking about whether words really matter (and not merely because, at time of writing, I’m under contractual pressure to produce 500 more of them). Aren’t they just noises that we make in the hope of eliciting a desired response? So we say “champagne” to make sparkling wine seem more celebratory like we say “Whoaaaah!” to make a horse slow down. Notions of precision, truth and meaning are feeble attempts to lend dignity to what is, fundamentally, just the planet’s most selfish species needily bleating.
That’s certainly the approach taken by many corporations in their use of the word Covid, as in the ubiquitous phrase “due to Covid”. According to a survey by the UK Institute of Customer Service published last week, people have had enough of it. After being initially tolerant of the coronavirus being cited as a reason for problems and delays in the early loo-roll stockpiling phase of the pandemic, people now feel the excuse has worn a bit thin. Complaints about poor service have risen to their highest level since 2009. As Jo Causon, the institute’s chief executive, put it: “Saying ‘because of Covid’ is not a good phrase. Organisations must not hide behind this blanket statement.”
But what’s to stop them? Customer dissatisfaction loses its sting if it doesn’t result in falling custom. At the moment, it seems like every single company is blaming Covid for everything being late and no one being available to pick up the phone to apologise. So how are the customers supposed to express their dissatisfaction if they’re not lucky enough to be one of the 10,000 respondents to the Institute of Customer Service survey?
Another problem is that it’s a plausible excuse. Covid has caused huge practical problems in every area of commerce, many of which persist. Supplies of everything are delayed. The very companies we suspect are deceitfully blaming Covid have themselves to deal with other companies, and some of those companies will be suffering genuine problems because of Covid, while others of them will be deceitfully blaming Covid. No customer can pinpoint a moment when they definitely know they’re being lied to.
Many companies must be lying though. I know this because, before the pandemic, it was virtually impossible to get through to any large organisation on the phone and it still is. The only change is the reason being given. Before Covid, it used to just be “We’re experiencing exceptionally high call volume” – another meaningless plaintive bleat.
Are the phone systems on which you hear that excuse sophisticated enough that the message is only triggered when the call volume is genuinely exceptionally high? Not just above average, but in the top, let’s say, 2-3% of call volumes they’ve ever experienced? Or do they just play that message whenever all the lines are busy at the moment you call in? I suspect that’s the norm, not the exception. After all, if all the people who work in your call centre aren’t perpetually on the phone, your company is paying for employees to do nothing. It’s far more financially efficient to have fewer phone answerers, so they’re always busy, and instead waste your customers’ time.
“You are being kept waiting to minimise our staffing costs,” is what the message should say. If I were president of Russia, “staffing costs” would become the new official definition of Covid.