Tubby, chubby, chunky, thickset, heavyset, big-boned — they’re all euphemisms for fat people, or, to be more politically correct, overweight or obese people. This is a hot topic because of Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity initiative for children and because America has a high percentage of overweight people. Obesity is part of the health-care debate too, because such people often have complications that make them expensive to the health-care system.
So what should we call them?
Allan Sloan, Fortune magazine’s senior editor at large, writes a column for The Post about economics, putting into plain English a lot of the business jargon you see every day. I enjoy his column; it has an irreverent touch. And he’s a funny guy over the telephone.
This past Sunday, in a column criticizing aspects of the Medicare reform plan authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and President Obama’s health-care law, Sloan wrote: “Obamacare doesn’t surcharge people such as smokers or mega-fatties, who increase costs for everyone, and does nothing useful about the malpractice mess.”
Yes, “mega fatties.” Ouch.
Some Post readers objected to Sloan’s use of the term. Suzanne Owen’s response was typical: “I wanted to express my disappointment with Mr. Sloan’s column appearing in the Sunday business section. In his discussion of Medicare costs, he referred to demographics that were driving health care spending, including smokers and ‘mega-fatties.’ I am sure that there is a more respectful, professional way to refer to this segment of the population.”
Sloan, however, was unapologetic:
“I used ‘mega-fatties’ instead of ‘morbidly obese’ for the same reason I use ‘junk mortgages’ rather than ‘subprime mortgages,’ and ‘printing money’ rather than ‘quantitative easing:’ My writing style is to translate jargon into understandable English. If I had to do it again I’d write it the same way.”
Yes, Sloan acknowledged, it’s legitimate to question whether the term is offensive for some readers. If his editors at The Post had raised the issue or taken out the reference, Sloan said he might have pushed back a little, “but I wouldn’t have screamed at Greg,” referring to Post business editor Greg Schneider.
Schneider said that, in retrospect, he would have taken the term out. But the column got lost in an editing shuffle after a decision to postpone publication because other news was more pressing. Said Schneider: “It appears that when the decision was made to hold the Sloan column, the initial editor put it down to move on to more pressing daily stories. But the other editor who picked it up a few days later mistakenly thought the first editor had already worked the full story. So it fell through the cracks. We should have caught it and will do a better job of back reading.”
As for me, I prefer colorful and clear writing to dull and turgid. Editors, and ombudsmen, should not be trying to make stories lifeless. Maybe if Sloan had called smokers “cancer-stick suckers” it might have had more parallelism. But on balance, I would have simply used “the obese.”