Ad and marketing creatives

Of Coke and Cat Food: The "Classics" Among Us

Picture this classic scenario. You wake up, shower with Palmolive Classic soap, wash your hair with Pantene Pro-V All Hair Types Classic Shampoo, and spritz yourself with Classic by Abercrombie and Fitch — your new favorite fragrance. With Fluffy mewing at your ankles, you open a can of Friskies Cat Food Classic Paté, then blend your own breakfast in a Cuisinart Pro Classic food processor while you brew some Folger's Classic Roast coffee. In your classic car — a 1969 Mustang, say — you sing along to your favorite classic-rock station; at work, you run Classic Shell on your computer and check MapQuest Classic for street directions. When 6 p.m. comes around, you're ready to head home and see what's on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel.

It should be obvious by now that you're living — we're all living — in the Classic Era. But what do all those "classics" signify, and what are "classic" brands trying to sell us?

"Classic" has had multiple meanings since it entered English in the early 17th century, and most of them are still in use. The word has roots in post-classical Latin, confusingly enough; it originally meant "of the first class" or "of enduring interest and value," a sense that still hovers around "classic" cat food. By the mid-17th century "classic" also meant "representative" or "definitive" — as in Lay's Classic Potato Chips. In the mid-18th century it acquired the meaning of "timelessly elegant or beautiful," as in "a classic gown" or Classic Home, "the leading importer of elegant rustic furniture and textiles and handmade natural fiber rugs from India." It can mean "the very best" (classic literature) or simply "typical" (a classic example).

"Classic" has been a noun for as long as it's been an adjective. One of its meanings is "a work of enduring quality," as in "a literary classic" or, in a more populist vein, Classics Illustrated, a comic-book brand that began life in 1941 as Classic Comics and endured for 30 years, bringing graphic versions of Moby-Dick, The Three Musketeers, and other novels to young readers.
Translating "classic" into a European language evidently renders the product extra-classic: see Classico pasta sauces and the Nordstrom clothing brand Classiques Entier. (The latter name is only French-ish. "Entier," an adjective meaning "entire" or "complete," should be pluralized to agree with the noun "Classiques.")

Around the turn of the 20th century, the noun form of "classic" took another turn: It now referred to any of the five main flat races of the British horse-racing season (the One Thousand Guineas, the Two Thousand Guineas, Derby, Oaks, and St. Leger). By extension, "classic" — often capitalized — came to be applied to other major sporting events as well. And it crossed the Atlantic, showing up as the National Hockey League's Winter Classic and college basketball's Charleston Classic.

Sometimes "classic" means "preceding a certain year or date." In New York City real-estate lingo, a Classic Six is a six-room apartment built before World War II. For TCM (Turner Classic Movies), a "classic" is a movie released between 1930 and 1970, although the channel sometimes airs silent films or critically acclaimed movies released after 1970.
The "classic" that precedes "car" also means "old," but it's a different old in the UK and the US. To the British, a classic car is any model that's more than 25 years old. The Classic Car Club of America, on the other hand, defines "classic" as 30 to 49 years old. (Pre-antique as 50 to 99 years old; antique is 100 years old or older.)

Yet another sense of "classic" has been in circulation for nearly 30 years and has influenced several generations of marketing campaigns. Let's call it the Coke classic.

In April 1985, Coca-Cola — then celebrating its 99th year — announced it would be retiring the original Coke recipe and replacing it with reformulated "New Coke." The switch was a huge miscalculation, triggering public protests and boycotts. Less than three months later, the company bowed to pressure and brought back the old formula under the name "Coca-Cola Classic." Finally, in 2009 — long after "New Coke" had disappeared from shelves — Coca-Cola dropped the "Classic." (It endures in the names of various Coca-Cola Classic sports tournaments and road races.) By then, "classic" had come to signify, to a large part of the population, "the original version" or "the previous version" or even "the good stuff before they started messing with it."

This was the sense that filtered into the world of personal-computer technology. "Classic C," for example, is an informal designation for the programming language C (introduced in 1978), which was updated by C++ and Objective-C. When the navigation website MapQuest changed its interface in 2010, it gave users the option of sticking with the original, now called MapQuest Classic.

Technical editor and Visual Thesaurus contributor Mike Pope told me that "‘classic' has become a generic way to specify a version of software or hardware that originally had no version information and for which there is now a contrasting and newer version." It can be used either before or after the term it modifies: Macintosh Classic, the computer introduced in 1990, was a reissue of the Mac Plus packaged in a boxy new case; Classic Shell is an open-source version of Microsoft Windows introduced earlier this year that restores the Start button missing from Windows 8.

This use of classic, Mike says, is a retronym marker: "It refers to an earlier mode which once was the only mode, hence had no distinctive name." (For more on retro- and other -nyms, see Mike's May 2013 column.)

Retronymic "classic" has migrated into non-computer contexts, too. Consider "classic rock," a staple on every radio dial. The term surfaced in the late 1970s, when "the twin wedges of disco and punk had split rock's past off from itself ... but U.S. radio, by now a corporate force for conservatism, hadn't kept up," writes Boston Globe movie critic Ty Burr in Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame (2012). "The words ‘classic rock' would have seemed nonsensical a decade earlier; now they represented a last stand against the mohawked Huns and effeminate disco queens."

Of those three musical formats, guess which one survived. It may not always be "of the first class," but classic rock is certainly "enduring."

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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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