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From brand names to the smart grid

Barbara McClintock
(Language Update, Volume 8, Number 1, 2011, page 7)

The "verbing" of brand names

A New York Times article by Nick Bilton last November has language professionals all atwitter, or at least "twittering,"Footnote 1 about the marketing success of some IT brand names so commonly used that they have become verbs. The author refers to an interview with Fred R. Shapiro, an editor and trademark consultant, who pointed out that, until recently, companies were loathe to allow their brand names to be used indiscriminately, because their trademarks would be weakened. "The success of brands in technology, like Photoshop and Google, has opened people’s eyes to the fact that becoming a verb is not always a bad thing," Mr. Shapiro said.Footnote 2

Since at least the 1940s, some popular brand names, such as fridge, kleenex, tampax, thermos and band-aid, have become generic common names. Hoover vacuums spawned a verb, to hoover (chiefly British). Named after the man who commercialized them, hoover is considered a proprietary eponymFootnote 3 rather than just an eponym (a person after or for whom something is named), because it is a brand name. Such commonly used words are also referred to as genericized trademarks or generic trademarks. Much to the Xerox company’s chagrin, its name became synonymous with photocopiers and started being used as a verb. Xerox "has long urged consumers to ‘photocopy’ rather than ‘xerox’ documents…That’s why companies acquire trademarks, after all."Footnote 4

It is still popular to say "look in the fridge" (from Frigidaire) rather than "in the refrigerator," "pass me the box of kleenex" and not the "box of facial tissues." Band-Aid (often not capitalized) has even acquired an additional meaning: a band-aid solution is a temporary solution. Surprisingly, in Quebec joual, the word plaster is still used, from the old British expression sticking plaster, which is not used in English Canada anymore. FedEx, photoshop and facebook are some other eponymous verbs, e.g. "I facebooked that link."

Taking a new approach to this issue, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently commented to The New York Times that Bing "works globally" and has the potential "to verb up."Footnote 5 It will be interesting to see which terms will survive over the years when there are competitors for the verbing honour: will we say "google it" or "bing it" in the future? iPhone or smart phone?

The same phenomenon exists in French. The usual translation for tweet is twitter or tweeter in French, although gazouiller is making some inroads in newspapers:

Je l’ai twitté.Footnote 6

C’est très tendance de gazouiller (tweeter) durant le party de Noël.Footnote 7


Companies need to study the cultural impact of brand names. The name of Audi’s new e-tron electric car "hits the fan." A scatological reference in French, e-tron causes French speakers to burst out laughing. In any case, the company could have come up with something more original than the ubiquitous e- prefix!

It’s a smart world

Just like the e- prefix, smart is everywhere these days in marketing (intelligent or futé in French). In the U.S., the smart grid (réseau intelligentFootnote 8) is shaping up to be a new multibillion dollar industry focusing on smart meters. The HydroOttawa website calls the smart grid "The Future of the Provincial Electricity Grid."

The smart grid is a two-way communication system providing access to detailed information about energy consumption, encouraging more efficient energy use. You will know what the electricity price is each day so, if it is low, you can charge your hybrid or electric car’s battery. The U.S. "will soon have 400 installed stations."Footnote 9 According to The Gazette, the first electric vehicle charging stations (bornes de recharge pour véhicules électriquesFootnote 10) were installed at the Sheraton Hotels in Montréal and Toronto in December 2010. Moreover, when the power grid has been modernized, you will be able to "charge up" your car in your own driveway, and all the information on your energy use will be sent to your smart phone. Coming soon!

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