Muppets or Mullets?
A Goldman Sachs executive recently unburdened himself, in a manner that to this observer smacked of equal parts legitimate moral disgust and dubious moral grandstanding, of the not exactly surprising revelation that Goldman Sachs is often dismissive of the better interests of those clients to whom its loyalty theoretically knows no bounds. To anyone with 10 minutes’ experience of Wall Street, this provoked the reaction “No shit, Sherlock.” The media, however, went into the mouth-foaming frenzy with which it greets each new Warholian quarter-hour sensation. Thick and fatuous flew the platitudinous outrage. Huff and puff, huff and puff. In particular, much was made of the fact that people at Goldman routinely refer to the firm’s more obtuse or pliable customers as “muppets.”
Whether this is indeed an established Goldman locution I know not. The firm denies it, and has instituted, according to the financial press, a full-bore email search to uncover whether the term has been used internally in connection with any person other than Miss Piggy, Kermit and their colleagues. I doubt much will come of this.
The suckers list
Wall Street has always held its customers in a certain low regard. Unfortunately, those doing the holding do not themselves represent much of an advance along the evolutionary food chain over those at whom they scoff. This has been especially true of the past 30 years, when the traders, an altogether lower order of capitalism, completed their long march through the Street’s lodestar institutions and drove the better angels of the markets into the sea. You wouldn’t expect much in the way of bright new coinages from such an intellectually sorry lot, and there haven’t been. Most firms maintain what is known as “the suckers list,” a designation that would seem to require no gloss from me, and that is about as far as it has gotten.
I must say, however, that muppets is a new one on me. According to Brewer’s Twentieth Century Phrase and Fable (1991 edition), the Goldman variant (for such we may call it) flows out of the Jim Henson original, to wit: “(2) British derogatory slang for a mental-hospital patient or a person disadvantaged in some way. It is also used of unattractive teenagers by their peers. It is not known why the friendly puppets should have created this disagreeable slang sense.”
With all due respect to Brewer’s, I think there may be an alternative etymological explanation. Long, long ago, before the miraculous coalescence of computer technology and greed made possible the sort of created-to-die marvels of “financial engineering” that thugs in pinstripes sell to “muppets,” investment bankers used to peddle oil and gas syndications to lay investors. This was the sort of stuff that would have had Mark Twain’s Duke and King, of Huckleberry Finn fame, licking their chops.
When we were out putting such deals together, we routinely referred to our prospective “investors” as “mullets”—a kind of fish that I believe is a shark’s preferred menu item, which figures. Might it be that, over time, “mullets” evolved into “muppets,” helped along by Henson’s puppets? It seems possible, and even likely. Whatever determination may be made, it seems unlikely that muppets will achieve the viral immortality of another sobriquet associated with Goldman Sachs: the “giant vampire squid” tag hung on the firm in 2009 by the brilliant journalist Matt Taibbi. Ask “what’s in a name?” That one tells you all you need to know.—MICHAEL M. THOMAS