Lions and Tigers and Vampire Squids, Oh My!
When Matt Taibbi described Goldman Sachs as a "vampire squid," he created a monster of a word for corporate bloodsuckers.
Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi—for my money, the only writer ever likened to Hunter S. Thompson who doesn’t suffer by the comparison—has a way with creative invective. You have to love a writer who refers to new House Speaker John Boehner as “the hairy blue mold on the American congressional sandwich.” I don’t know if that line will be remembered, but a similar comparison from 2009 sure was: “The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
That metaphor proved powerful enough to outlive Taibbi’s article: “vampire squid” is now a common nickname for Goldman Sachs that’s also used for other corporate beasts that prey on the public. Considering the damage done to the world economy by investment banks in general and Goldman in particular, the success of “vampire squid” smells like sweet linguistic justice.
In articles about Goldman, this Taibbi-ism is used casually and frequently, like when Paul Levy discusses “vampire squid economics” and “vampire squid induced debt.” Headline writers in particular are having a blast with the term, as seen in “A tighter line to reel in 'the vampire squid'” and “Go, You Vampire Squid.” Some writers cite Taibbi as coiner of the term, but many do not. Those Taibbi-less uses are most significant to word-watchers—they indicate the term has spread beyond fans of one writer.
The recent news that Goldman Sachs was investing $50 billion in Facebook led to an aquarium-load of vampire squid references, prompting questions such as “Is the Vampire Squid Wrapped Around Facebook?” One creative writer observed, “Vampire Squid Book kinda has a nice ring to it no?” Another sadly commented on Goldman “being so dang vampire squid about the whole thing.” This term is succeeding for the same reason Taibbi’s articles on the econo-pocalypse have succeeded: When discussing a dry, complex, confusing, and important topic like finance, honest language is a godsend.
At this point, even Aquaman himself couldn’t pull the term “vampire squid” away from Goldman Sachs, but that doesn’t mean other meanings aren’t percolating. There are signs the term is catching on as a broader term for mega-powerful corporate scum. In his 2010 words of the year list, the Canadian linguist Joe Clark defined a "vampire squid" as a “Corporation that aggressively seeks to dominate—one could say smother—an entire industry.” Urban Dictionary is semi-reliable, but its definition supports Clark’s:
Vampire squid refers to any large private or public organization that is a major drain on society through malicious but subtle or invisible actions. These organizations usually get away with what they do because of corruption within the society's regulatory structure.
Sure enough, you can find folks using vampire squid in non-Goldman contexts, as in this education-oriented tweet: “Gates Foundation is a vampire squid wrapped around public education, relentlessly squeezing the life out of teachers and children.” I’ve also seen Samsung, Pimco, and even China described as vampire squids. With a metaphor this appealing and so many predatory economic forces in the world, it’s hard not to see vampire squids everywhere you look.
Since I am an animal-lover as well as a word-lover, I feel we need to mention the real McCoy: the vampyroteuthis infernalis—meaning “vampire squid from hell” (I suspect this will also be the name of a movie about Goldman at some point). Here’s more info, plus a flattering pic and some video of the Dracula of calamari in action. That’s one hell of a cephalod.
In a Daily Beast interview, Taibbi confessed that his famous comparison wasn’t biologically accurate. Apparently, fact-checkers “... almost killed the line because squids don’t have blood funnels. I was trying to explain that was part of what made it funny, but they were very insistent. I had to go over their heads on that one.”
Thank Zeus he did, or Taibbi might not be the author of Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America and the world would lack a great nickname. Nicknames are powerful tools; they’re a kind of renegade branding. Republicans are usually the masters of such word games, with their job-killing, blank-blanking frame jobs. It’s nice to see someone else win a game of pin-the-name-on-the-jackass for once.