13

You are in your workplace. Your father is visiting you. He sees one of your coworkers and asks you:

Who is the suit?

Is the word "suit" offensive in this context?

A usage of this : http://youtu.be/y8rzt-vj2gU?t=3m17s

  • Side note: I worked for large corporations and bureaucracies for most of my life, and I never heard anyone use the word "suit" to refer to a person. The only place I've ever heard it used is on television. So I question how common it is. Maybe it's a regionalism. – Jay Jan 15 '15 at 16:54
  • 5
    I'm primarily aware of it as coming from the Jargon File, repository of early hacker/programmer vocabulary: catb.org/jargon/html/S/suit.html . Conflict between engineers and 'management' (who wore suits and were not well thought of) was a significant part of that culture. – MrTheWalrus Jan 15 '15 at 17:35
  • 2
    @Jay, I'm curious -- where are you from? I hear "suit" used in this context all the time in the California Bay Area and Austin, TX (both of these being tech hubs, and both having a significant level of presence of both hippie and hipster communities, both of which have significant disdain of suits). Indeed, first time I saw an engineering manager at a small startup wearing suits regularly and non-ironically was inside the last 12 months, after a move to Chicago; prior to that, doing so would have made a statement about corporate culture -- and made recruiting far more difficult. – Charles Duffy Jan 15 '15 at 21:12
  • @CharlesDuffy I grew up in New York, when I graduated college moved to Dayton, Ohio, lived there most of my life, presently live outside Detroit, Michigan. I spent a lot of that time working as a consultant for the military. On the one hand, military culture might be different. On the other hand, I worked with people from all over the country, especially Texas (San Antonio), Utah, and North Carolina, close enough that if it was a common term in their areas I think I would have heard it. Now that I think of it, military sometimes call top uniformed people "the brass", which I think has ... – Jay Jan 16 '15 at 13:52
  • ... similar connotations. But as I say, I never heard top civilian people called "the suits". – Jay Jan 16 '15 at 13:53
19

This is synecdoche, and it is curt and slangy, and probably derogatory. Keep in mind that mildly derogatory slang terms can be used affectionately as well. A similar example comes to mind: say you're the driver to a ski trip? You might be referred to as "the wheels." It's derogatory in the sense that that's now your purpose, flattering in the sense that your pals trust you with the role, or think you are good with it, etc.

When you use synecdoche like this, you are saying that being a suit or the wheels is the person's only relevant function.

  • You could use it as a slur, e.g. "Suits aren't welcome here."
  • If you meet a friend with a businessperson and say "who's the suit?" that would be mildly offensive also.
  • "What's with that bar? Seems like there's a lot of suits in there." probably implies that you think suits are a type of person and probably a type you don't like.
  • A software developer might say to a colleague helping her on the project "oh he's just the suit" to mean "he's not important right now, because we're talking about technical stuff."
  • If you are an engineer you might introduce your partner as "the suit," which is affectionate because it is derogatory and no harm is meant. But, it is also an expedient way of saying "my partner does all the business stuff," which is ironically very important but also far removed from what "I" worry about.
  • I've never heard the term used in a non-derogatory context, but in most cases I've only heard it used with mild derision. Basically it implies that one's appearance is their only or most important function (e.g. "the engineer", "the IT guy", "the designer", versus "the suit"). – Doktor J Jan 16 '15 at 16:16
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    @DoktorJ anything can be used ironically though, e.g. there's a "geeks and suits" meetup where presumably the business-side and the tech-side gets together and forms a startup. – djechlin Jan 16 '15 at 18:34
13

Collins defines "suit" as:

  1. (slang) a person wearing a suit; specif., a business executive or a bureaucrat (usually a term of mild derision)

So, yes, it is somewhat offensive.

  • 4
    It's very mild, though. As with everything context is key. – Crisfole Jan 15 '15 at 20:24
  • Usually it would be used by those who do not wear suits in order to separate themselves from a culture they do not agree with. – Octopus Jan 16 '15 at 16:56
  • Or, in a self-deprecating sense: "Me and the other suits..." – Stephie Jan 16 '15 at 16:59
3

Suit is slang for an executive - one who has to come to work in a suit.

While it isn't "offensive," it is typically used by someone who does not identify himself as an executive, nor is it overly affectionate. It is by no means derogatory - the person is admitting he is not "a suit" by it isn't something I'd actually say to the executive myself.

  • I'll note that is also used by anti-establishment people who variously don't approve of corporations, etc. It's also something you are unlikely to say directly to someone. Doing so would likely come off rude. – eques Jan 15 '15 at 16:37
  • "come off rude" Maybe and maybe not, depends on context. If a friend got a promotion and you said, "So, you've become a suit now?" that probably wouldn't be taken as rude. Depending on tone of voice and context, etc. If a clerk said, "Yeah, I'll get that report done for you and the other suits", I suppose that would be taken as rude. Again, depending on tone and context. – Jay Jan 15 '15 at 16:53
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    I think in general it is mildly rude. You can use it with your friends because the friend will understand you to be speaking in a jocular manner, like many words that are normally considered rude. But in general it indicates a distaste for corporate structure, and is therefore a little rude. – Kai Jan 15 '15 at 17:19
  • @Jay I don't think that's a real counterexample because there's irony. Congratulating a band on a major record deal with "so you've sold out now?" would be similar. – djechlin Jan 15 '15 at 18:37
1

Suit is offensive

The reason it is offensive is because it gives the impression that all they are is the suit they wear. A "suit" is an executive who, in the speaker's eyes, is nothing more than an empty suit. The person inside the suit is unimportant.

Someone who uses this term would feel comfortable treating several "suits" interchangeably, because to them, a "suit" is not a person, its merely a machine performing a role in business.

1

If you've ever watched the TV show, "White Collar," you know that the quirky character Mozzie (played by Willie Garson) refers to the FBI agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) as "The Suit" and his co-workers/fellow agents by variations of the phrase: Agent Jones is called "The Junior Suit," Agent Diana Berrigan is called "The Lady Suit," Agent Kimberly Rice, who is seen as hard & aggressive, is called "The Pants-Suit," a superior officer is "The Super Suit"...Agent Burke's wife Elizabeth is called "Mrs. Suit"...

The main character, con man/forger/thief-turned-criminal informant Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer), who gets his sentence shortened by helping the "suits" catch other criminals, has a lot of fun playing against Peter's uptight, strait-laced, by-the-book officer-of-the-law, and as his partner-in-crime, Mozzie loves tweaking Peter's calm demeanor & pushing his buttons...Eventually through the 6 seasons, these three form an unlikely comraderie, and soon a genuine friendship as they bring down the bad guys & try to keep Neal out of jail or from being killed...

In one episode, Mozzie, who holds an online degree from some unknown "divinity school" (he also has an online law degree), officiates Peter & Elizabeth's renewal of their wedding vows, ending with, "I now pronounce you 'Suit' and 'Mrs. Suit'"...

In another episode, the three go to an old stone fort to find clues to a case, and Mozzie develops a fever from being poisoned by a female criminal they are chasing...At one moment as he begins to deteriorate, Mozzie slips and refers to Peter by his first name...Neal asks, "Did you just call him 'Peter'?" Mozzie answers, "Who? The Suit?" Mozzie is eventually taken to a hospital and his life is saved...

In this show, the term "suit" thus becomes a term of affection, friendship and respect...

-2

Any word used with contempt can be offensive, but two things must occur for this to be the case.

1) The speaker meant offense.

2) The subject felt offended.

Both must occur. If the speaker meant offense, but the subject wasn't offended, then no offense occurred. If the subject was offended, but the speaker didn't mean offense, it is up to the subject to speak up for clarification and absolution of intent, or the offense is moot.

Again, this is true for most words. In this instance, and in the case of most English speaking countries, the term 'suit' while 'mildly derisive' generally will not cause offense in the subject. In effect, even if your Father was meaning to insult, most (nearly all to a very small percent) won't take it as such, therefore, in that context, it was not offensive.

There should also be mentioned the situations where the speaker means insult while the subject cannot participate in the conversation. The term "offense," in this context, is defined by:

annoyance or resentment brought about by a perceived insult to or disregard for oneself or one's standards or principles.

Therefore, again, the while 'speaking ill' of someone without their being part of the conversation is considered 'bad form,' is it not actually offensive, or offending.

  • 4
    (1) is definitely not required. – djechlin Jan 15 '15 at 18:23
  • The word doesn't have to be deliberately offensive to be considered offensive, but the subject must be able to realize that no harm was meant. – TankorSmash Jan 15 '15 at 18:28
  • @AAA It is. If the speaker did not mean offense, the subject has two options. Ask for clarification of intent, or be silent. If they are silent in their offense, then it is on them. It is now their problem. If the subject speaks up, and the intent is cleared, it is again, on the subject to forgive the offense. If forgiven, the offense is then cleared. Clean, gone... that is the definition of forgiveness. If the subject cannot forgive the unintended insult, then they have taken upon themselves the issue of the insult, not the intent. TankorSmash "considered" is again "subjective," so yes. – Salteris Jan 15 '15 at 18:51
  • A term or phrase can certainly be deemed offensive outside of a specific instance of someone using it and someone else being offended by it. Offensive can mean repugnant or insulting as well as something that causes offense. Is there a reason that we're parsing the word offensive as something other than impolite when the question is actually about the word "suit"? – ColleenV Jan 15 '15 at 19:41
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    @Salteris you just turned a question about English grammar into a political lecture, which is why I think this answer is so wrong. – djechlin Jan 15 '15 at 23:24

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