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Why are Some Brands Used as a Verb When Others are Not?

This article, in part satirical, is about how American English speakers use some brand names as a verb in everyday language although not all brand names are used this way. Years ago, I remember in corporate offices when individuals needed to make photocopies of a document or a contract, what did they turn to? At the time, Xerox had a dominate position among photocopy machines so instead of saying, “I have to photocopy this legal agreement,” many people adopted a shorter version by using Xerox as a verb and say, "I need to Xerox this sheet or contract before sending it to marketing." After a while, this short-cut was used so often that many speakers didn't realize they were using the brand as a verb. It’s a machine that makes duplicates of a document and yet you’d hear the word ‘Xerox’ in the act of doing the same thing. Fast forward 30 year into 2020, things have changed significantly so much that Xerox photocopy machines and all photocopiers are not used as much. Many companies and especially smaller companies are using multi-functional devices that fax, print, scan, and copy. Today, the Xerox brand is not ubiquitous in corporate and business settings, (and in those offices that still have a Xerox machine), it’s typically multi-functional so using Xerox as a verb is no longer commonplace.

Another example of using a brand item as a verb pertained to vacuuming. Young people today don't remember this but some would use the Hoover vacuum cleaner as a verb. Perhaps it was more common in England than the US but I did hear this some years ago. To get rid of dust and dirt, one might say, "I need to Hoover the carpeting or Hoover the floor. Weird to say today but years ago, most people knew you meant vacuuming. One interesting tidbit, in German, they say, ‘Staubsauger’ which means ‘dust sucker’ which is essentially what the machine does. In English, it’s a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t literally describe what it does, but what it represents.

Moving into the 21st century, we have internet searching that predominately involves Google.

It’s quite common to learn a fact about romantic comedies from the '90s or the birds of Maine, one might say, "Why don't you Google it?" I guess with over 92% market share, I’m not surprised that Google is used this way. With the Bing search engine capturing little market share, you’d never hear someone say, 'I need to Bing this to find the answer.' Whatever happened to 'use the browser to find the answer?' Isn’t Google enough of a monopoly without giving them free branding?

Another example of a household product that’s not used as a verb is the Johnson Wax product of Pledge. When discussing dusting or polishing the dining room table, everyday American speech would not go something like this, "Could you Pledge the coffee table or furniture?" First, you can't get any more succinct by saying 'dust the furniture,' even though it’s quite common that the only furniture polish in the house is Pledge. Second, if you used 'Pledge' as a verb, it might sound too wordy if you promise your spouse you’ll dust later by saying, 'I pledge to Pledge the furniture later.'

Clorox bleach is another example where this product isn’t used as a verb. For example, when the white towels and bedding need to be bleached and cleaned we don't say, "Let's Clorox the bedding and white towels." We'll say, "Let's bleach the bedding and white towels."

Perhaps, it didn't catch on as there's little advantage in this example in using the brand name as 'bleach' is a succinct way of saying what you want to be accomplished. Empirical thought may suggest that if someone mentions ‘bleach,’ they immediately think of Clorox which shows this product has had strong brand recognition for a very long time.

I guess dishwashing products are also exempt from being a brand as a verb. I regularly wash dishes by hand but I would not say, 'I will Dawn the dishes that are in the sink.' It just would not be said. Looking at the dishwasher, you wouldn't say, "I will Cascade the dishes in the dishwasher.” First, using ‘Cascade’ here as a verb is in-congruentThis to the dishwasher. In other words, using ‘Cascade’ here means to gush or spill. That’s not something you want to occur in your kitchen, regardless of the modern appliance. For the foreseeable future, we’ll just continue to say, "Let's load the dishwasher, or let's run the dishwasher," and I’m fine with that.

Just to be contrarian, I'll sometimes say, "We need to launder the clothes," instead of saying 'We need to do laundry." I believe the former is correct but that doesn't mean it's commonly used or people are comfortable hearing that household described differently. One quick diversion, why do we say that ‘money is laundered’ but not ‘clothes are laundered?’

Getting back to using a brand as a verb, what about cleaning mirrors, glass windows, or doors. I’ll sometimes hear, “We need to Windex the outside windows because they are filthy.” That's much easier than saying, "We need to use our glass cleaner to clean the outside windows." Either way is succinct but using ‘Windex’ appears to be more common, perhaps because it’s a little easier to say or because of its strong brand presence or both?

The product ‘Kleenex’ has replaced tissue although I’m not sure when this change occurred – perhaps it was over many years. However, it’s not used as a verb because if you have a runny nose or are sneezing, a family member or friend may offer to grab a 'Kleenex' for you, instead of a tissue. Frankly, I’ve seen ‘tissue’ used sometimes as much as ‘Kleenex’ but the manufacture of Kleenex, Kimberly Clark, is in no hurry to change that narrative. Full disclosure, I often use ‘Kleenex’ instead of a tissue and I’m not always fully aware at the time I’m doing so.

Am I annoyed by the misuse of brands in our everyday language? Do I wish certain brands were not used as a verb while others are not? Not necessarily. It’s just amusing to talk about it when it occurs. If communication is still effective by doing this, then what’s the issue? It is still interesting that certain brands catch on in this manner and others don’t. I will close by saying the one use that annoys me today pertains to Google, first, how were they able to capture so much market share over the last 10 years? How did they obtain a monopoly among search engines? Second, we never use the term ‘search’ or ‘search the internet’ to describe the tool used to find information on the internet. It’s just ‘Google this’ or ‘Google that’ and that’s a problem in my mind.


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