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Linguist Geoff Nunberg

Linguist Geoff Nunberg comments on the way films like Star Wars have influenced the language of corporate culture. Enron picked names such as Jedi Capital and Obi-1 Holdings, Inc. to hide funds offshore.


Other segments from the episode on March 25, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 25, 2002: Interview with Kevin Conley; Obituary for Eileen Farrell; Commentary on language.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Kevin Conley discusses his new book, "Stud: Adventures
in Breeding"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Remember the horse in "The Godfather," the horse whose amputated head winds up
in bed as a little wake-up call to his owner? That horse was supposed to be a
good investment.

(Soundbite from "The Godfather")

Unidentified Man #1: Hey, come on over here with me. I want to show you
something really beautiful. You do appreciate beauty, don't you?

Unidentified Man #2: Mm-hmm.

Unidentified Man #1: There you are, $600,000 on four hooves. I'll bet
Russian czars never paid that kind of dough for a single horse. Khartoum,
Khartoum. I'm not going to race him, though. I'm going to put him out to

GROSS: Well, he knew something that we're going to learn more about today, a
good stud can earn a fortune. And what a way to earn a living. As my guest,
Kevin Conley writes, `The money is phenomenal, the sex is brisk and
multifarious and the settings are as green and unembarrassed as Eden.' Conley
is the author of the new book "Stud," which is all about the breeding of
racehorses, from the intimate acts to the big business. Conley is an editor
at The New Yorker. When he was researching his book, Storm Cat was the top

Mr. KEVIN CONLEY (Author, "Stud"): Storm Cat, the top stud in '99 and 2000,
was making, at the time I began this story, $300,000 for a date. And it's
currently up to 500,000 this year, which means at a conservative estimate of
50 such dates a year, he's making 20 million a year. That's not counting the
contracts that he has on the side, the long-term contracts with the farm that
he has to honor, and various outside farms who realized early on that this was
something worth getting in on.

GROSS: Who would have suspected that sex could be quite that lucrative? How
many offspring has Storm Cat sired?

Mr. CONLEY: I'm not sure what the count is up to because this is foaling
season. But I think last year, it was somewhere around 720. And he's very
valuable because of those 720, 93 have become stakes winners. Thoroughbred
races are graded, and the top echelon of races are the stakes race. And those
stakes race winners are very rare, and he's sired 93.

GROSS: Gee, you'd think if you sire that many horses, that they'd become less
valuable because there's so many of them.

Mr. CONLEY: Well, the value that Storm Cat can give is not necessarily at the
racetrack. This is kind of hard to grasp. You pay $500,000 really for the
chance to turn around in another year and a half, two years and sell that foal
at a yearling sale. And last year, Storm Cat's foals, yearlings sold for an
average of 1.7 million. And that, I believe, was on a 250,000 or $300,000
investment. So people turned right around and made 1 million and change on
their 300, $250,000 investment. And that's really why he's valuable.

Now people who want to get into the horse racing game know that Storm Cat is
the horse to go to if you want to get a real runner. So there are rich people
lining up to get into the thoroughbred racing game. And that's another reason
why it's valuable.

GROSS: Why is a stud considered to be worth that much? I mean, I'm thinking
that the performance of a horse probably has a lot to do with that horse's
temperament, as well as its genetics? Maybe the temperament is part of the
genetics, but like for human beings, we think that the makeup of a human being
is part genetic but part a function of environment and chance. Wouldn't that
be true for horses, too?

Mr. CONLEY: Absolutely. That's the argument against cloning. If you were to
clone five Secretariats, who knows how many would make it to the track? One
might run into a fence, and the other might have lead paint fall down into its
feed bowl. And, of course, it's just like humans, that winning at the races
is not necessarily a matter of breeding the fastest horse. For a horse, the
race is itself a social event, and they're paying attention to a lot of
back-and-forth non-verbal signals about dominance and submission all the way
through the race. Sometimes the race is won before the horses even get in the
gate. And so breeding the horse to have that qualities is not just choosing
the fastest mare and the fastest filly. You often are breeding for
intangibles like temperament and aggressiveness, patience and intelligence,
ability to avoid problems.

GROSS: Does it matter to a horse in terms of its breeding and its ability to
race whether it was born through artificial insemination or through an act of
actual congress?

Mr. CONLEY: Yes. You can't be a thoroughbred unless you've been born by an
act of sexual congress. All other breeds use artificial insemination. It's
very helpful. It means that you can take a horse in Ohio and impregnate a
mare in California or Vancouver. And what this does with thoroughbreds is
this prohibition against artificial insemination means that the mares have to
travel to where the stallions are. And in this country, the stallions, the
highest concentration of stallions, the most valuable studs in the world are
all in about a 60-mile radius centered around Lexington, Kentucky. That's
where Storm Cat is. That's where Seattle Slew is. That's where this year's
horse of the year, Point Given, has retired. And I would bet that 90
percent of the horses in the top 100 are in Kentucky.

GROSS: I know that you've been to the places where the breeding takes place.
Would you describe one of those places for us?

Mr. CONLEY: Well, they all look at beautiful as any English boarding school,
and at the top-of-the-line farms, they have a colonnade of trees, beautiful
Irish stone fences, slate roofs, oak barns. And when you get to, say,
Coolmore Ashford Stud, in Kentucky, even the hay seems to be art directed.
There's so much money in the business that they're selling you the dream, as
well as the barnyard experience.

GROSS: What happens when it's time for the mare and the stud to perform the
act of congress? How are they, like, introduced? How do they get together?

Mr. CONLEY: Well, before the mare and this stallion, the valuable stallion,
are introduced, there's a teaser stallion who has to come in and do his job.
Now the teaser stallion is there because the actual stallion is much too
valuable to get kicked by a mare who isn't quite in the mood yet. So they
bring some horse who hasn't been quite as good at the track--and the stallions
have these noble names, like Storm Cat or Dynaform or Conquistador Cielo or
Seattle Slew. And the teaser stallions have gas station type names, you know,
Earl and Honcho and Koop and Skitchy.

And they'll bring old Koop in, and he'll try a jump. Often, he wears a
leather apron and something of the sort to make sure that he doesn't get too
intimate with the mare. But when it's clear to everyone in the barn that the
mare is not about to kick the prize horse flesh who's probably waiting in the
wings at this point, the poor teaser stallion is hauled off to get frustrated
again tomorrow or maybe later in the afternoon, and the stallion steps in.

The stallion pretty much believes that everything that walks through the
breeding shed door is his. And by this point, he's heard some of the
goings-on and he is ready to go usually, if he's a professional with a high
libido. And depending on his personality--different horses are different.
Seattle Slew seemed to be very gentlemanly in his address of the mare;
cautious, to make sure that the teaser stallion had done his job correctly, he
seemed to come up along the side and gently nuzzle her down her flanks and
then take a tentative jump himself on his own.

And, of course, all of this is going on in the presence of six or more
professionals who choreograph the event for efficiency, speed. There is a man
or woman holding the mare's lead shank, somebody holding the stallion's lead
shank. There's what's called a tail man who will pull the mare's tail back at
the last minute. There is a stallion manager ready to guide the stallion home
when he rears. And there are, of course, usually a vet or several other
grooms in attendance in case they're needed. Some stallions are a little bit
more leisurely about the act, and sometimes somebody will come from behind and
kind of give him an extra push if he seems to be a little slow at his job.

It's really, in its own way, a little like the New York City Ballet, very
highly choreographed. And when it's done well, which it almost always is, it
takes about 30 seconds, probably about an eighth of the time it's taken me to
describe it.

GROSS: Does there have to be any chemistry between the mare and the stallion?

Mr. CONLEY: Well, it's funny because there are definitely some stallions who
have their preferences. Seattle Slew seemed to like gray mares, I was told.
And when I went to visit a feral herd, which was a group of about 60 horses
who had arranged themselves into different harems, each of the stallions, the
harem stallions, seemed to have chosen according to his own preference. There
was a stallion they called Hershey, who seemed to prefer kind of chocolatey
brown horses. There was another one who liked the kind of paint variety with
dapple colors. And so, yes, they have their preferences often and their
moods, but the professionals in the breeding shed will make sure the job is
done. Sometimes it will take 40 minutes, and generally it's pretty quick.

GROSS: Does it seem like the mare or the stallion get any pleasure out of the

Mr. CONLEY: It's hard to know exactly...

GROSS: I feel like such a voyeur talking about the horses doing this, but,
you know, it's odd to talk about.

Mr. CONLEY: Well, it is very odd to talk about it, and when I first went
down, I felt strange actually being there, but everybody there was so
comfortable. This is, you have to remember, million-dollar properties being
created. This is a business. And these are people whose job is to make sure
that it's done well. And actually, I was more embarrassed about my
embarrassment in the end than anything else.

GROSS: So do the horses get any pleasure out of it?

Mr. CONLEY: Certainly the stallions seem to enjoy it. The mares seem to have
a drive to reproduce that is quite strong. Most of the time, they could care
less about the stallion, pretty much 11 months of the year and 27 days. And
during those three days or so of estrus, they couldn't be more come hither in
their behavior.

GROSS: My guest is Kevin Conley, author of the new book "Stud." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Kevin Conley, author of the new book "Stud: Adventures in
Breeding." He's an editor at The New Yorker.

How do the owners know when the mare is going to be ovulating?

Mr. CONLEY: Well, that's one of the reasons why in the past 30 years or so,
this business has become so much more lucrative than it used to be. For much
of this century, a stallion could only manage about 40 or so dates a year.
But with a lot of the increase in the accuracy of pinpointing the ovulation
that veterinarians can do, they've been able to know exactly when the mare is
ovulating and hustle her right over to the breeding shed. So they've been
able to double, triple, even quadruple in some cases, that 40 a year. Last
year's leading stud, Thunder Gulch, I believe had 216 dates; live covers they
call it in Kentucky.

GROSS: And will the mare almost definitely get pregnant?

Mr. CONLEY: I think the standard is 60 percent conception rate, so that

GROSS: If your mare doesn't get pregnant, do you still have to pay the full
fee for the stud?

Mr. CONLEY: Most of the contracts--and there are definitely a variety of
contracts--most of the contracts are for guaranteed live foal, which means
they will give you another chance until you get pregnant, and you will pay the
stud fee on the delivery of an animal, four legs on the ground.

GROSS: Right. Meanwhile, let's back up a second. What happens to the teaser
stallion who is brought out to arouse the mare? Then the stallion's led away
in frustration, then what?

Mr. CONLEY: You know, I have to say that I really identified with the teaser
stallions through it. They seemed to have a lot of personality and, you know,
I was--in my own life I was more the guy who sat around and made the jokes and
then went off to get a drink for somebody and meanwhile the moody and
attractive man had left with the person I had been talking with. And so the
role of teaser stallions--I always wanted to follow them and find out what
they do. They pretty much have a life that's filled with frustration, but
when I visited the feral herd, I spoke with a woman who runs that research
center. And she was actually a therapist for the dysfunctional stallion and
used this feral herd as a kind of laboratory for the psychological health of
the stallion. The stallion in the wild is always potent, always fertile,
always healthy. And it's in the thoroughbred breeding farms that you find
these strange problems.

And one of the things that she told me was that as soon as a stallion gains
access to the mare, his testosterone levels skyrockets. And as soon as he's
taken away, within hours, his testosterone level drops. And teaser stallions
often spend the most time around the mares, and they spend a lot of their day
going around the brood mare barns and checking to see if the mares who live
there are ready to ovulate. Kind of giving a preliminary check. And so,
strangely, it's the teaser stallions often who have the highest testosterone
level on the farm.

The stallions who usually live in seclusion and by themselves often in a barn
housed at night with the other stallions, but they're kept away from each
other. They live like monks, on their own, because there is a belief that
stallions are very aggressive. They are in fact very aggressive. And left to
their own devices--and these stallions would fight to the death.

GROSS: So the poor teasers get no relief?

Mr. CONLEY: They very rarely do. I--the people who work at the barn often
work most with the teaser stallion. In other words, the stallions will come
and go, but the teaser is there for mare after mare. So they feel kind of
close to the teasers, too. So they will make sure often that he gets a little
fulfillment at some point. There are--there's a strange thing. Many of the
things that humans have, have a kind of analog in the horse world. And
thoroughbred mares are often so nervous that they reject their foal. And the
farm has to bring in a nurse mare, kind of like a nanny, to be a wet nurse for
the expensive foal. And those nurse mares contractually have to be returned
to their owner pregnant. And a lot of farms take pity on these teaser
stallions. And it's the teasers who do the job of getting the nurse mares


Mr. CONLEY: So there is relief.

GROSS: Well, here's a question I need to ask: How did all this horse sex
affect your libido?

Mr. CONLEY: Well, now I have heard--I've spoken with a psychiatrist who
treats a lot of horsemen down in Lexington, and I've heard that there's a
certain jump that they get from being around a particularly pre-potent sire,
as they say. I can't really admit on national radio to any effect in my own
personal life. I do have a four-month-old baby.

GROSS: So did watching the process of horse breeding affect your interest in
horse racing?

Mr. CONLEY: Yes. I now pull for the young'uns of the sires that I've seen in
the breeding shed, definitely. It's very easy to get a kind of rooting
participation interest in thoroughbred racing because of that.

GROSS: Well, Kevin Conley, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. CONLEY: Thank you.

GROSS: Kevin Conley is the author of the new book "Stud: Adventures in

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, we remember soprano Eileen Farrell. She died Saturday at
the age of 82. She sang with the Met, but she also recorded many albums of
American popular song. Also, linguist Geoff Nunberg considers how
corporations are appropriating the language of action and adventure films.

(Soundbite of music)

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Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Analysis: Language used by corporate America

One picturesque note to the Enron affair was the names that the company picked
for those offshore corporations that it used to hide its losses. A number of
them came from action-adventure films like "Braveheart," "Jurassic Park" and,
above all, the "Star Wars" movies, which contributed names like Jedi Capital,
Obi-1 Holdings, Kenobi Incorporated and Chewco, after the Chewbacca character.
According to our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, those names say something about the
way modern corporations think about themselves.

GEOFF NUNBERG reporting:

I'll grant you that Enron's use of names like Jedi Capital and Obi-1 Holdings
was a symptom of the singularly space cadet mentality of the company's top
management. But that fondness for "Star Wars" imagery isn't limited to one
rogue outfit in Houston. The fact is that George Lucas has probably had more
influence on the language of corporate America than any other single
individual, with Vince Lombardi and Fritz Pearls running neck and neck for

This has less to do with Lucas' cinematic imagination than with a problem that
has haunted corporate America ever since the early 20th century, when large
corporations definitively replaced the family firm as a dominant economic
force. How do you motivate employees to feel a sense of loyalty or commitment
to an abstract entity like a corporation? In the words of Peter Drucker, the
first and only great theorist that the corporation's ever had, `An engineer
will not be motivated to make a shareholder rich.'

That problem became more urgent about 20 years, as corporations started to
bail out on the traditional promise of lifetime employment, and as the salary
gap between employees and top managers began to swell. That's when
corporations and consultants started talking about creating high-performance
corporate cultures. That term was meant to suggest that purely symbolic
rewards and motivations could move employees to feel a loyalty and esprit de
corps that went beyond anything that was justified by material considerations

But culture is too vague a term to do any work by itself. It has to be
fleshed out with language borrowed from some other realm of social life.
Writing just after the Second World War, when the country had come together in
a swell of patriotic spirit, Drucker has suggested that corporations ought to
think of themselves as miniature polities, the representative institutions of
society. But modern corporations haven't found the language of civic
engagement a very inspiring model. It's not stirring enough, for one thing,
and it focuses too much on individualism and democratic consensus. However
you package it, it's hard to make a corporation look like anything but an

At first blush, the military would seem to be a better model, but modern
military language has become more corporate than the language of the
corporation itself, with its predilection for acronyms and euphemisms like
collateral damage. And not even a bank or insurance company would dare to
refer to its employees as assets. What corporations really wanted their
employees to feel like was the combatants in medieval romances, setting out on
quests in the face of implacable inhuman enemies and driven by a spiritual
sense of mission. And, of course, that's what the space operas made their
stock in trade, Sir Gawain on the Holodeck.

So it's no accident that shortly after movies like "Star Wars," "Star Trek"
and "Mad Max" began to appear, corporations started to loot their language.
Salespeople became road warriors, and the people who shepherd new products and
initiatives through development were called champions. Above all, that was
when corporations started to come up with vision statements and mission
statements. Those were posted on walls or Web sites, and printed on
wallet-size cards that employees were expected to carry on their persons at
all times, like the sacramental badges called scapulars that the members of
monastic fraternities wear under their clothing.

In the end, these vision statements almost always come down to the same
bromides and generalities that have been around for years under the headings
of goals and mottos. `Our vision is to seek long-term growth by providing
innovative, high-quality products that create significant value for our
customers.' That's an unimpeachable corporate objective, whether you're
selling eyeglasses or heavy equipment. But 30 years ago, no one would have
thought to describe it as a vision, a word that used to be reserved for people
like St. Teresa of Avila.

Whatever you tell them, of course, most corporate employees aren't at risk of
confusing themselves with Luke Skywalker. In fact, the chief effect of all
that "Star Wars" talk about missions and visions has been to exacerbate
employees' sense of disaffection. All the more because it seems to demean the
everyday dedication that most people actually bring to their jobs. In private
life it's enough to have goals and hopes, but when you arrive at the workplace
now, your eyes are expected to be glistening with some nobler sense of
purpose. I recall what a friend of mine told me about having to compose a
vision statement for his job. `It isn't enough that I give them my body, now
they want me to kiss them on the mouth.'

But then the real audience for this language isn't so much the employees it's
addressed to as the executives who commission it. In an age when successful
CEOs are routinely treated as media stars, top managers no longer model
themselves after traditional corporate sages like Alfred Sloan or James
Watson. They'd rather think of themselves in the image of General Patton or
Captain Kirk, leading their troops into battle as they trail a cloud of
rousing metaphors behind them. However dreary or dull your friends may find
you, it isn't hard to think of yourself as a charismatic leader when you've
got a communications department churning out yards of fulsome panegyric. Not
long ago I saw a Xerox Corporation press release that said, `The senior team
spontaneously erupted into sustained applause, and stood as a sign of respect
to their new leader.' That's the sort of language that would make even a
Stalinist apparatchik blush.

In the end, though, the real victims of this sort of talk aren't the cynical
employees who ridicule it; it's the trusting ones who buy into the story and
load up their 401(k)s with the company's stock. And then when the Death Star
explodes, the Force is nowhere to be found.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford's Center for the Study of
Language and Information.

(Soundbite of "Star Wars" theme)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Star Wars" theme)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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