Blog Excerpts

Which Brands Get Verbed?

On The Economist's Johnson blog, contributors are considering the question of why we "Google" and "Facebook," but we don't "PowerPoint" or "Excel." They've proposed some reasonable theories for brand-verbing.

The question was first raised by Johnson blogger R.L.G. after posting about how Google has been used as a verb since 1998 by the very creators of the search engine. Ben Zimmer discussed the history of "Googling" in a Word Routes column last January, "Googling vs. Bing-ing," after the verb google was chosen by the American Dialect Society as the Word of the Decade:

The very first known appearance of the verb google comes from none other than Google cofounder Larry Page. In an announcement to the Google-Friends list on July 8, 1998, back when Google was a still a search engine on the Stanford University website, Page signed off by saying, "Have fun and keep googling!" Note that even back then in the early days, google in its verb form could be uncapitalized. (Perhaps it still carried a whiff of the word googol, the term for 1 followed by 100 zeros, on which Google was based.)

R.L.G. then wondered why "Googling" has become so pervasive while other brands remain unverbed:

AFTER posting on Friday about the verb to google, I've been wondering why it was such an obvious word to verb, so much so that Larry Page and Sergey Brin did so already in 1998. If we think about technology, we Facebook, Google and Twitter (or tweet, of course).  But we don't Apple, Microsoft or Novell, nor (to use some of their product names) do we iPod, Excel or GroupWise.  We used to Xerox—not so much these days—but we never did Walkman.  I wonder what makes some things tempting to verb, and others not so much.  One notices the same metric foot is quite common—strong-weak, or the trochee—across the verbable and non-verbable, so prosody can't be our explanation. Some are quite clearly activities, like searching for something on the Google search engine, and so tempting to verb. But other clearly defined activities don't commonly get verbed: he PowerPoints gets 205 hits on Google, whereas he googles gets more than 33,000, despite how ubiquitous PowerPoint has become. Any theories on this?

His colleague G.L. took up the challenge:

There's a risk that all explanations of such things will be just-so stories, but here goes anyway. I hereby introduce G.L.'s First Rule of Brand-Verbing, which is that people will verb a brand name if it refers to a clearly-defined, frequent action for which there isn't a perfectly adequate pre-existing verb. So to google became to search on the web, to facebook meant to look up or contact someone on Facebook, and to skype covers calling someone by VoIP telephony. (Admittedly people using Google Voice don't say "I'll skype you", but maybe it's a matter of time.)

But what about to xerox? This seems to break the rule. After all, while xerography, the technology on which Xerox machines were based, was invented in 1938 and Xerox started making the machines in 1959, the perfectly good word photocopy dates maybe from 1909 (Merriam-Webster) or 1920-25 (Dictionary.com).

So as a sub-clause to the First Rule I'll add that if a verb for the action already exists the brand name catches on when it's contemporaneous with the action's becoming commonplace; before Xerox, there just wasn't that much photocopying going on. Among photographers, meanwhile, to photoshop is common currency for what you do to an image after you've snapped it, maybe because it's an activity so far removed from the laborious darkroom processing of physical film that it needs its own new word.

Read the rest of the post here.


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Blog Excerpts.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Wednesday October 20th 2010, 3:47 AM
Comment by: Debbie Y. (Dalpark South Africa)
The classic one was HOOVER. We all used to HOOVER our carpets whether or not we used a Hoover vacuum cleaner or any other brand.
Here in South Africa we have our own one. There is a retail chain called Checkers. Our groceries are packed in plastic bags with their branding on it. Now you will often be asked in ANY retail shop by the cashier if you want a "checkers" meaning a plastic bag to put your purchases in.Instead of a verb, it has become a colloquially used noun, somewhat like the Bic/Biro pen.

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.

Googling vs. Bing-ing
- 7 Comments
What happens when the names of search engines become verbs.
The American Dialect Society anointed its picks for the past year and decade.
Grand Theft Motto
- 16 Comments
How trademark holders try to hold on to bits of the language.