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Wilf Popoff

Wasted Words: Sows’ Ears as Silk Purses

House for rent along the road. Part of the rural and urban landscape
Alexander Lysenko ©

I was amused to read that some Hamilton landlords, faced with a public relations crisis, want to rebrand themselves as rental housing providers. They feel landlord has too many negative connotations, imputable to its medieval traditions; landlord also suggests a “callous and wealthy man collecting cheques each month and doing little else.”

Rental housing provider, on the other hand, shows they’re “providing a service.” And, of course, it isn’t gender-specific. It never hurts to play the PC card, but one wonders when landladies became extinct.

Here we go again, I thought. A label collects pejorative overtones and we directly blame an extraneous factor and reach for a dictionary; nary a thought to looking into possible reasons for negative fancies or perhaps changing the behaviour that might be behind it.

Like many of us, I had to deal with landlords in that interregnum between leaving home and being able to buy a dwelling. I despised all of them: fat cats who were doing me a favour by providing rental housing. While timely payment on my part was mandatory, their duty to maintain my pad seemed optional.

There are several difficulties with this rebranding idea, and the main one is the premise that landlord evokes a feudal noble exploiting his penurious serfs. I doubt anyone makes that association. We think of a landlord as someone who rents buildings, housing or land to tenants, precisely what these chaps in Hamilton do today.

But this is not a Marxist economic analysis; it’s about words, particularly wasted ones. Besides, I’m sure there are decent landlords out there.

If we do look back, it’s like to someone operating an inn, as saluted in “Landlord, fill the flowing bowl until it doth run over,” in the 16th century English folksong later popularized by the Kingston Trio. Today in an English pub it’s okay to say, “Another whisky large, landlord!”

An additional problem is that no matter what they choose to call themselves, most people — especially the drafters of our laws and statutes — will continue to call them landlords. Chanda Lockhart, executive director of the Saskatchewan Landlord Association, told a reporter that changing the name would be futile because the public wouldn’t want to follow suit: “Everyone would still refer to us as landlords.” She suggested landlords try to overcome negative stereotypes by focusing on “providing good customer service and quality rentals.”

However, even if landlords succeed in getting us to call them rental housing providers without changing their ways, how long will it take for the new brand to become besmirched? This is usually the problem with euphemisms.

When rebranding occurs and there’s no behavioural adjustment, we simply transfer our former impressions to the new entity.


Previous post from Wilf Popoff: Wasted Words: A Paean to Poetry.

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3 Comments on “Wasted Words: Sows’ Ears as Silk Purses”

  • Anita Jenkins


    “Real estate agent” became “realtor” for many of the same reasons. Many people in western Canada seem to think that they can sell their own house and avoid the fees, but I happen to know that “realtors” provide a valuable service. Maybe not as valuable as the fees suggest, but valuable. As you say, Wilf, words will not change the perception in this case, and in many others. On the other hand, I am glad to use the words disabled and/or facing mobility issues when talking about my husband. Some of the previous words were not very respectful.

  • Gael Spivak


    Does this sentence in the article mean that the author is saying that women (and men) who want occupation words to be non-gender specific are “playing the gender card”? And therefore acting in an improper way?

    “And, of course, it isn’t gender-specific. It never hurts to play the PC card, but one wonders when landladies became extinct.”

    Cambridge Dictionary
    play the race card: disapproving
    ​to try to gain an advantage by drawing attention to someone’s race or to issues of race

    Am I missing something? I thought “playing the x card” was a bad thing, whereas eliminating bias (including sexism) was a normal part of editing. Maybe I don’t understand the idiom correctly.

  • Anita I. Jenkins


    Apparently, one topic at a recent twig meeting was perceived problems with the term “freelance” and preferring to call oneself a consultant or contractor. I adored saying I was a freelancer, which to me meant that I was operating my own micro business and I was not an employee, which in my deranged mind meant “wage slave.” I was in control of who I worked with, when I worked, what jobs I took on … All a delusion, perhaps, but for me it was my right livelihood and freelance was the right word.

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