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CNBC's June 28, 2022 U.S.’s Russia sanctions architect Singh departs as Ukraine war drags on refers to the position as a sherpa in two places as quoted below.

The Sherpa people:

...are one of the Tibetan ethnic groups native to the most mountainous regions of Nepal, Tingri County in the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Himalayas. The term sherpa or sherwa derives from the Sherpa language words ཤར shar ("east") and པ pa ("people"), which refer to their geographical origin of eastern Tibet.

and most westerners associate the term with the heroes who risk their lives to coordinate and facilitate climbs of Mt. Everest and carry a lot of the supplies that keeps the visiting climbers alive. Lhakpa Sherpa holds the record for female sherpas at 10 times (most recently just last month) and "retired" Apa Sherpa holds the record for male sherpas at 21.

Back to the article:

U.S. President Joe Biden will have a new “sherpa” on his trip to Germany next week — a former BlackRock strategist named Mike Pyle, who replaces Washington’s former point person on sanctions, Daleep Singh.

Singh, who played a crucial role at the White House in coordinating Western sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine in February, this week took a job as chief global economist and head of macroeconomic research at PGIM Fixed Income, a Wall Street asset manager with $890 billion in assets.

Pyle, who joined the Biden administration as Vice President Kamala Harris’ chief economic adviser, took the job on an acting basis and will play the crucial coordinating “sherpa” role in Singh’s absence when Biden joins the Group of Seven rich nations summit in Germany.

He is one of three top administration officials who previously worked at the investment giant BlackRock, along with Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo and National Economic Council director Brian Deese.

Surely it's staff and not investment bankers who coordinate and facilitate the US president's international trips and cary his food, oxygen and clothes, so I'm confused by the terminology and reference.

Question: Why is the US Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics called a "sherpa"?

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2 Answers 2

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The reference is to a sherpa in the sense of the word, not referring to a people or ethnicity, but to a guild of skilled Tibetan mountain guides who provide insight and carry key resources for mountain climbers who retain their services.

The metaphorical use in this case is to a key aide serving as a skilled guide for the President added by resources of high levels of subject-matter knowledge and knowledge of the key players involved, in the treacherous environment of a diplomatic meeting which is the metaphorical mountain ("the summit") being climbed.

The metaphorical sense of the word is recognized, e.g., at Dictionary.com

1 : a member of a people of Tibetan stock living in the Nepalese Himalayas, who often serve as porters on mountain-climbing expeditions.

2 (sometimes lowercase) an expert chosen by a chief executive to assist in preparations for a summit meeting.

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    Thanks for the concise, thorough and well-sourced answer! Jun 28, 2022 at 1:51
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    This is kind of like when they started calling a bunch of assorted advisors "czars" of one sort or another. The word carries some cultural baggage (in this case Russian rather than Tibetan), but it's not being used in that sense exactly. At this point it could be considered a borrowed word in English, much like "mogul" or "poohbah". Jun 28, 2022 at 18:12
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    Part of the pun might be that the G7 summit was actually held in the mountains (albeit nothing as high or magnificent as the Himalayas). Jun 29, 2022 at 14:27
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I don't think this is a general term for the Deputy National Security Advisor.

Notice that "sherpa" is in scare quotes. It's being used metaphorically. Sherpas are guides who help people reach the summit of Mount Everest. The meeting is a "summit meeting", and this official is assisting Biden during this meeting.

Yes, the President has lower-level staff who assist with mundane tasks like food and clothes. The sherpa is more concerned with the official business of the meeting.

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    The use of sherpa, with or without quotes, is well established for senior negotiators who do all but the actual signing of a treaty or summit declaration. Just like the mountain guides -- when you think of the Mount Everest, do you think of Hillary or Tenzing?
    – o.m.
    Jun 28, 2022 at 4:24
  • @o.m. Hillary, because he had the money....
    – Barmar
    Jun 28, 2022 at 4:25
  • Beyond summit meetings, the term "sherpa" is sometimes applied informally to someone who helps guide a Supreme Court nominee through the Senate confirmation process. It's often a former Senator these days, someone who can guide the nominee through the world of the Senate and escort them to meetings as part of the confirmation process, though there's a much larger team involved there as well. Jun 29, 2022 at 5:10
  • "sherpa" is not in "scare" quotes, it's in quotes. Jun 29, 2022 at 15:42
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    Scare quotes have nothing to do with something being scary. It's an idiom that means that the term in the quotes is "so-called", i.e. it's a figurative term. quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/…
    – Barmar
    Jun 29, 2022 at 15:54

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