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How "Livery" Changed Its Spots

For a word that first showed up in English around 1300, livery has managed to remain surprisingly current. Livery stables, where horses and carriages are hired, may be nearly extinct, but "Livery Stable Blues" (complete with musical whinnies) reached new ears on the soundtrack to the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire." In "Downton Abbey," which recently ended its third season on PBS, newly hired servants are issued "fresh livery": distinctive uniforms befitting their station. And in early March of this year, the owners of New York City's "livery cabs" — non-metered taxis summoned by phone — were in the news for their legal victory over the city, which had wanted to sanction "e-hail" smartphone apps.

There's yet another sense of livery, one with particular resonance in branding and design. This livery means "a vehicle's exterior appearance," and it surfaced in reports earlier this year of American Airlines' first new visual identity in 45 years. "The unveiling of the new logo and livery," said the press release, "is the latest step forward in American's ongoing journey toward building a more modern travel experience for its customers."

This wasn't the first appearance of "airplane livery" — nor was it the first time in eight centuries that livery has changed its meaning. The word ultimately derives from Latin liberare, to liberate, and it originally meant "something that was delivered or handed over." When livery was adopted from French livere, it meant any kind of allowance — clothing, provisions, food — given by a master to his servants or animals. In the 15th century it took on a legal meaning still maintained today in the phrase "livery of seisin": the granting of property possession by one person to another.

Meanwhile, in general usage livery's meaning gradually shifted to "a servant's uniform," on the one hand, and "the renting out of horses for a fee," on the other. (Livery can also be an adjective — "having the flavor or texture of liver" — but that's beside the point here.) Livery also acquired a metaphorical sense of "outward appearance," as in the line in a Shakespearean sonnet: "Thy youth's proud livery, so gazed on now."

That figurative sense is the one preserved nonfiguratively in American Airlines' "logo and livery." But the path from Bard to brand was neither straight nor swift. Unlike many examples of contemporary commercial jargon, it first cropped up in the Old World and took more than a century to cross the Atlantic.

One of the OED's secondary definitions of livery is this one:

A distinctive colour scheme and design on a vehicle, product, etc., indicating its owner or manufacturer; (also) an emblem or device having the same function. The term was originally applied to the colour schemes and designs adopted by railway companies for their locomotives and passenger carriages, after the personal liveries previously displayed on carriages, etc.

The earliest citation for this usage comes from the May 28, 1897, edition of the Pall Mall Gazette: "The familiar and handsome livery of the Great Western Railway Company—a light shade of chocolate, with cream panels — has naturally been adhered to." Citations from the 1920s and 1930s are also British and also refer to trains. A 1970 citation from the Guardian at last connects "livery" with airplanes — Russian Antonovs, whose paint colors were "not the normal livery of Aeroflot passenger aircraft." Later citations — all still from the U.K. — refer to the liveries of buses, bicycles, and "Granose soya milk products."

When was this livery adopted by Americans? U.S. dictionaries aren't helpful here; Merriam-Webster just says the sense of "an identifying design (as on a vehicle) that designates ownership" is "chiefly British." Try telling that to the many fervent U.S. participants in airplane and aviation forums, where the branding sense of livery has become firmly entrenched. But for how long, I wondered?

I turned to the archives of the New York Times, which go back to 1851. For a century and a half, the livery links go to stories about livery stables and servants' uniforms. Then, in December 2002, a breakthrough, in a profile of Tyler Brûlé, a Canadian-born editor and publisher who had lived and worked for many years in London and who had recently started a branding agency, Wink Media. For its first client, Swissair, wrote reporter Stephen Todd, Wink undertook "a total redesign of the 133-plane fleet, from cutlery, seats, uniforms and blankets through to the carriage livery and logo, all the way up to the name, which is now simply 'Swiss'."' It may not have been coincidental that Stephen Todd is Australian: this "livery" was an opening wedge in a Commonwealth invasion.

It went slowly at first: the next Times citation is in a 2003 story about changes at the Russian airline Aeroflot, and it's in a quote from a Brit: "'Rebranding can't be about a new livery,' Tom Austin, the deputy chairman of the London firm Identica, said. ... 'It has to be about absolutely everything.'" But momentum was gathering: Americans were eagerly embracing Britishisms — like bespoke, gobsmacked, and opening hours — and livery fit right in. (For more, see Ben Yagoda's Not One-Off Britishisms blog.)

Over the next few years livery began showing up in blogs and online forums about cars and planes, and by 2007 the Times's American auto writers were inserting livery more liberally into their stories. Honda's Formula One cars had "the gnarliest livery on the grid" — a deft blending of American slang and British jargon. A 2008 report from the Los Angeles Auto Show described the Spyker C8 Laviolette LM85 as having a "largemouth snout" and "black and orange livery."

By 2009 livery had achieved widespread acceptance: it appeared at least nine times in the Times, in stories about planes, cars, and even the financial crisis. ("And I see again the light blue livery of Barclays Capital, which represents — for me, at least — the flag of an impostor, a pale substitute for the swashbuckling banner that for 158 years was slashed above the entrance to the greatest merchant bank Wall Street ever knew: Lehman Brothers.") In December 2011 the Times could publish "Comparing Airplane Livery" without a definition or explanation.

The success of livery in America is only partly attributable to its posh-seeming British pedigree. It also fills a gap in the language. It's a single word that rolls off the tongue and concisely expresses what had previously required two or more jargon-y words: "exterior paint job," "identity application," "visual brand." And the associations with history, horses, and faithful servants add extra luster. Flexible, long-lived livery is here to stay.


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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday March 20th 2013, 7:48 PM
Comment by: Rain
I'm impressed with the research that obviously went into the writing of this article, and I've learned many facts new to me. Good job!
Wednesday March 20th 2013, 8:29 PM
Comment by: mac
m'thinks she doth grind too hard. is Ms Friedman purporting this understanding of livery as having been accepted by the hoi-poloi? speaking as a hoi and an occasional poloi, i think it has yet to reach us. at the moment it seems more a code word of people in the trade, such as doctor code words or those of lawyers or murders of crows would to shield us from their ignorance.
but thank you, for this interesting article.
i'll retire and think more on my assumptions in council with felix unger.

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