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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: advertising


(1980’s | journalese)

I did not remember that “yuppie” had a competitor in its earliest days: “YAP,” or young aspiring professional, which entered the lexicon upon publication of “YAP: The Official Young Aspiring Professional’s Fast-Track Handbook” by C.E. Crimmins in November 1983. Two months later, “The Yuppie Handbook” appeared and soon swept the field. Why? “Yap” already had an unpleasant connotation (maybe that was the point), and the worst thing you could say about “yuppie” was that it rhymes with “guppy.” “Preppie” was already around; “foodie” came along a few months later, and those resemblances helped to swing the balance. Maybe “yuppie” is just more evocative. It caught fire and burned so hot that within a few years it had become fashionable, if not mandatory, to lament the yuppie world view and express hope that the next generation would embrace better values and practices. That’s about the time everyone started to complain about hipsters.

And so it goes — young urban professionals of the eighties succeeded the aggressive young ad men of the sixties and were supplanted in turn by hipsters of the nineties and beyond. (Is there a new name for the latest generation?) Privileged kids with impressive degrees fast-tracked for lucrative jobs in the city. Based on a light review of the corpora, I can offer the following yuppie characteristics as understood in the mid-eighties. First, they were baby boomers, the post-war generation grown to full adulthood, eagerly studied and analyzed for demographic reasons — there were a lot of them — and moral reasons, as members of the generation that gave us the licentious sixties and were widely suspected of being spoiled and selfish. Most yuppies didn’t do time as hippies, but some did. The generational positioning is significant; part of the reason we heard a lot about yuppies was that we had been hearing about them endlessly for thirty years before that.

Other stereotypical characteristics: materialism (in the consumer sense, not the philosophical), workaholism, physical fitness, keeping up with the Joneses, self-absorption. They wanted to have it all and were willing to work for it — high-powered, hard-charging, create your own adjective — and they liked to play squash, too. Like hipsters, yuppies were known for conformity and predictability. The absorption into the peer group leads to absorption in oneself; if the only people worth my attention are the ones exactly like me, then there’s no penalty for paying still more attention to my own desires and fixations.

Let’s not forget the variants, which have been there since the beginning; an Associated Press article from January 4, 1984 listed three: Buppies, Guppies and Puppies, meaning Black, gay and pregnant urban professionals. The first one got some use, but I never heard the other two (for which I am grateful). “Yumpie” (young upwardly mobile professional) was a variant that meant the same thing. Then there was “dink” (double income, no kids), a demographic coveted among advertisers.

“Yuppie” is used normally as an insult but may have an admiring or affectionate quality about it. It may, like other insults, be adopted by its target as a badge of honor. It’s a little like “Joe Sixpack,” which is used contemptuously by elites and fondly by the rest of us, only with the class polarities reversed. Today, “yuppie” has retained and strengthened its connotations of obnoxiousness and greed while losing any association with ambition or taste. Being a yuppie had some cachet in 1987, but not any more.

What took me so long to get to this one? Its chronological qualifications are unimpeachable, and there’s plenty to say about it. When Lovely Liz from Queens drew my attention to “yuppie,” I realized that it was past time. It seems to be disappearing slowly and may sound archaic in another generation, like “go-getter” or “gay blade” to someone of my generation, or my parents’, for that matter.

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(1980’s | “from OR of the old school” “classic,” “old-time(y),” “traditional”)

It’s a nice way to say “old-fashioned.” The point is it’s nice; “old-school” is a compliment. It’s not just the old-fashioned way; it’s the right way. It may be used to mean blinkered or backward-looking, but that is unusual; one encounters it much more often in an admiring tone. Some expressions turn sour over time and develop a harsher side (examples: aspirational, comfort zone, game the system, lone wolf), and this one might, but not so far.

Almost certainly a Briticism, the adjective phrase developed from things like the old school tie, where it means something a little different. In that phrase, the main unit is the compound noun “school tie.” (We should also remember the older adjective-noun combination, which usually had a sentimental cast but might also be uttered with regret or mockery.) Now the link lies between “old” and “school,” a compound adjective with or without hyphen. During the eighties it started appearing regularly in the American press in that form, in political and art journalism and no doubt elsewhere as well. Sportswriters and music critics took to it readily to talk about athletes or musicians who emulated performers of previous generations. But it has never settled in one neighborhood of the language; “old-school” can come at you from any side.

Smith Barney commercials from the 1980’s featured John Houseman intoning, “They make money the old-fashioned way. They earn it.” The commercial demonstrates why we needed the phrase, even though “old-school” doesn’t actually appear in it. There was no one more old-school than John Houseman. (Though he might be scouted by other old-school types for using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular entity. Then again, if you hear it as “Smith [and] Barney,” it’s plural after all.)

While Americans regularly show a preference for forgetting the past, there is a countervailing tendency to respect achievements and personalities that came before — because they paved the way or had an auspicious effect on later work. It arises from a yearning for a time when we were wiser and more sensible; we look to the past to provide standards and guidance, not just a way to measure our own accomplishments. When it comes to moral superiority, our past has a spotty record at best; some old ways have passed on and cannot be revived. If old-school exemplars want to be successful in today’s world, they have to choose the right practices, customs, and forms of address to hang onto. If you do it well, it still pays off.

Lex Maniac has covered a few other expressions that evoke old times: artisanal, back in the day, epic, retro. They all have the same admiring quality as “old-school,” or at least they did when they started out. I’ll have to come up with some that look back in anger.

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product placement

(1980’s | advertese? businese? | “advertising,” “publicity,” “exposure,” “play”)

The concept is much older, but the term was coming into general use by the mid-1980’s, as pursuers of product placement were becoming more organized and profitable. A film regarded as an early example of product placement as we understand it today was Spielberg’s “E.T.,” which featured Reese’s Pieces prominently. That was hardly the first appearance of a commercial product on celluloid — as opposed to the fake brands often seen in post-war television and movies — but it did portend an unholy alliance of Hollywood and Madison Avenue resulting in ever more insidious assaults on our wallets. Another significant event: Coca-Cola bought Columbia Pictures in 1982, which led to the sudden disappearance of rival products from Columbia’s films. Before 1980, the practice existed but was much less formal and standardized; the production company and manufacturer made a quick arrangement and that was that.

Turning product placement into a regular part of filmmaking opened up another revenue channel, and the studios started making better money when they got serious about negotiating placements. The brands benefit, too; the consensus is that product placement is mutually useful, at least for the suits. It’s more of a burden on the creative people; scripts may have to be rewritten in the midst of shooting to insert a product, for example. Music videos and television shows soon began making their own deals, and product placement spread quickly. When it occurs in other cultural manifestations, such as sporting events, it’s called something else, such as sponsorship.

It has all moved on-line now, needless to say. Influencers have raised the art form to new levels, and algorithms and artificial intelligence have staked their claims as effective judges of proper product placement, not to mention logo placement. Web commerce depends more and more on hitting viewers with narrowly tailored ads, which is just a special, or localized, case of product placement. One London company places images of today’s products into streaming versions of decades-old films, which seems like a violation of the original on many levels but is apparently accepted. Only yesterday I read about cities in south Florida commissioning an Amazon Prime television series set there to encourage tourism — the region becomes the product, taking matters to the next level. As the robots take over and mulcting humans becomes ever simpler, we can expect more of this, not less.

It seems clear that product placement is effective because it is not a commercial. Seeing an actor sip a soda in a movie is more like getting a recommendation from someone you trust than sitting through an explicit pitch with your defenses up. A clumsy or ostentatious allusion to a brand doesn’t work; if audiences sense that the product has been dragged in for the sake of plugging it, they won’t react the same way. But if it seems like an integral part of the script, arising naturally from the story (wait, didn’t actresses used to say things like that when asked to do nude scenes?), millions of people take away a favorable message about the brand for relatively little effort and expense.

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move the needle

(1980’s | advertese | “gain ground,” “make headway,” “make a dent,” “move ahead,” “show results”)

I have wandered back into the same ghetto I visited a couple of weeks ago with “change agent,” but, honest, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t realize that “move the needle” is a frequently cited example of corporate argot with a high seed in the Forbes “Annoying Business Jargon” playoff bracket. I thought of it as an innocent enough term that bobs up in the newspaper occasionally and to which everyone has equal access. That’s truer now than it was thirty years ago, when the preponderance of uses occurred in advertising and public relations. Advertisers used it to mean “increase sales” — their version of progress. In the manner of “change agent,” “move the needle” is strongly if not exclusively associated with improvement, specifically of organizations. It is possible to say “move the needle in the right direction,” but it is generally unnecessary, because we hear it without prompting. The expression may be used on its own when context makes it clear which needle is being moved, or it may be followed by various prepositional phrases that spell it out.

The sense has broadened now without changing much. Forbes defined it as “generate a reaction,” widely cited by other on-line commentators. That misses the bias toward improvement noted above. I would define it as “have a favorable or desired effect.” It lies close to “make a difference,” especially when used in social-justice contexts but even when not. To illustrate, consider the phrase used in the negative — “won’t move the needle” — which means “won’t make any difference” or “won’t get the job done.” It tries to sound like “raise the bar” but fails, lexically, at least; “move the needle” assumes an agreed-upon standard for judging success, while raising the bar involves altering that standard. “Move the needle” can also mean “make an impression,” but normally some kind of measurable progress is involved.

There is near-universal agreement (in which I participate) that the expression comes from an analog gauge, like an audio recording meter or a speedometer, where the location of the indicator — within a range from high to low or full to empty — conveys important information. A change in the needle’s position tells you that something noteworthy has happened. Another possible explanation: lifting the tonearm on a record player over a scratch, so as to get beyond the stalemate you’re in and start moving toward the goal again.

In 2020, one has heard “move the needle on diversity” a lot, which threatens to become a set phrase itself. All it means is make our schools, workplaces, governments, etc. less uniformly white. The phrase has seen a recent spike in articles about COVID vaccines, often stated as “Will (or How soon will) the new vaccine move the needle?” (i.e., free us of the plague, or at least get us closer). The pun on “needle” as “syringe” seems irresistible. The range and density of “move the needle” in everyday language remain to be determined; we can safely say that it won’t disappear.

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(2000’s | doctorese, therapese | “taking care of oneself,” “being good to oneself,” “treating oneself right”)

“Self-care” means many things. It used to mean one or two. Before the doctors got hold of it, self-care was akin to self-love, that is, nurturing the feeling that one is important and worthy. By the early twentieth century, the medical profession was starting to use the term to refer to those tasks we all have to perform day in, day out — dressing, eating, hygiene, and so forth. It was something children and disabled people had to learn to do, or be assisted in doing. By the mid-1970’s, the expression had come to denote the act of treating oneself for ailments, as opposed to consulting a physician. Depending on your point of view, self-care was a right or a folly, but that new meaning represented a significant shift. Now we might say “self-medicate,” but self-care went beyond chemical relief and encompassed exercise, diet, or simply neglect, when one got self-careless. Both meanings were still around in 2000, but in neither sense was it an everyday term, more that of the specialist.

Neither meaning has disappeared, but as we use it now it has a less formal, forbidding cast — not so much a change in definition as an expansion. Self-care is taking steps to improve your health, or just being nice to yourself in any of a thousand ways. One site breaks it down into five categories: physical, mental, social, spiritual, emotional. Self-indulgence is not encouraged, exactly, by advocates of self-care, but it may creep in here and there. Still, the goal is loftier most of the time, whether genuine self-improvement or merely keeping yourself going for the next set of hurdles. It’s all an outgrowth of self-improvement, I suppose. Taking stock honestly of your needs, figuring out ethical and effective means to meet them, and doing it consistently. It all sounds like therapese to me. Self-care is what happens when self-awareness meets self-esteem.

That sense of “self-care” has been around at least twenty years, but the word has acquired new urgency with the pandemic. It is not just a way to make yourself better and happier; your sanity may well depend on it. I do sense that the expression has taken on a slightly more desperate tone since March. Sheltering in place for many people has meant more stress and fewer outlets; under such circumstances it seems natural and necessary that we look for ways to make ourselves more equable and resilient. Self-care resembles “me time” in that it is often recommended as a way to make oneself more useful to others — to be a better parent or employee. (Of course, it is also closely related to the dreaded “wellness.”)

Most authorities would agree that self-care relies on some general principles. For example, self-destructive acts do not partake of self-care. (Is there an adjective? Neither “self-caring” nor “self-careful” sounds right. It doesn’t function as a verb, either.) Nonetheless, “to each his own” is an important part of the formula, as you might expect from a compound that starts with “self.” Self-care must begin with determining the actions and methods that meet your own needs. Defining and practicing it is a personal matter, and you do see “self-care” used in place of “personal-care” — as in shampoo and cosmetics rather than vitamins — though there’s an obvious connection between vitamins and self-doctoring, and that probably explains how the two terms fused in the first place. There may be some marketers’ cunning at work, too. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of ad men?

Noah from Wareham made this week’s expression possible with an essay of his own on “self-care” that I hope I have not plagiarized. Thanks, kid! Keep those expressions rolling in, folks.

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(1980’s | advertese? | “ambitious,” “wishful,” “desirable”)

Aim high. Think big. Look beyond yourself to a higher goal, a greater good. It is an odd thing about “aspire” and its derivatives. If you look up “aspiration” in the OED, most of the definitions have to do with breathing. (Any time you see a verb with “spire” in it, that’s where it comes from, even “inspire” or “perspire,” which may not at first call up images of respiration.) Then, right there in the middle of six or seven definitions is “steadfast desire or longing for something above one.” It looks like it must be related to the French “espérance” (hope), yet it too goes back to breathing: the idea is that you long for something so badly you’re panting. It should not be confused with “aspiring,” for it is not a synonym. To illustrate the difference, take the phrases “aspiring customer” and “aspirational customer.” The former is one who is not a customer but wants to be. The latter may already be a customer, specifically one interested in better or more elaborate merchandise. The trick about “aspirational” is that it may modify the consumer or the goods.

Indirectly, “aspire” confused me in a different way when I was young. When I first read the Latin phrase “ad astra per aspera,” I thought “aspera” was related to aspiration, as in “to the stars through lofty aims.” I would have been closer if I had thought of “asperity.” It really means “to the stars through difficulties,” in other words, overcoming obstacles to reach great heights. (It’s the state motto of Kansas, whatever that says about Kansas.)

“Aspirational” actually goes back centuries, but does not show up often before 1980, when apparently a gradual and persistent increase in use began. LexisNexis suggests that in the 1980’s, it was most prevalent in advertising, where the idea was to inveigle people into paying more for the product by convincing them it would confer higher status. In this sense it is closely related to another eighties coinage: upwardly mobile. That usage is still around, but now “aspirational” doesn’t only mean striving for something more or less attainable. Now we often use it to mean hopeful, but in an ineffectual way — or even flat-out delusional. When you do something aspirational, you’re acting on a belief that you wish were true. In effect you are trying to impose your will on the world and force everyone to abide by your cherished theory or desire.

Even in the 1980’s, you could find the word in politics, business management, and ethics. In the last field it had a particularly baneful meaning. One way to let government malefactors off the hook was to rule that certain ethical standards were “aspirational,” meaning that no one was really expected to follow them, so violations were not punishable. One of Reagan’s attorneys general, Edwin Meese, was exonerated of some of his numerous ethical lapses on exactly those grounds. If you want to see where that sort of moral relativism ends up, look around. Republican presidents, at least since Nixon, have reserved special contempt for the office of Attorney General, regularly nominating obviously corrupt hacks who equate their boss with the law and have no taste for equality, justice, or moderation. When Clinton was on the rack, Republicans loved to laud a government of laws, not of men. They don’t say that any more. They’ve fallen in behind Trump’s utter contempt for the law — something to be evaded or used as a weapon against your enemy, but in no case to be respected. Trump ignores the law any time he thinks he can get away with it, and most Republicans — even lawmakers! — profess allegiance. The notion that these power-mad toadies care, or ever cared, about the rule of law or the Constitution is more nauseous than laughable.

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(1980’s | advertese? computerese? | “high-priced,” “high-class,” “luxury,” “for the connoisseur”)

“High-end” joins a big family populated by “high roller,” “high on the hog,” and “high living,” all phrases that evoke wealth, ease, and sybaritism. It is simply short for “on (or at) the high end” of whatever scale is operative at the moment, but mostly the scales involve value or expense. So high-end goods naturally are associated with lavishness and opulence — things that few can afford but to which we all dumbly aspire. Costly, yes, but “high-end” has a confident sound, and “high-end” things are valuable additions to your life, not money pits or pains in the ass. They do what they are supposed to do reliably and well, embodiments of the old idea that you get what you pay for.

As a hyphenated adjective, “high-end” began to show up in the late seventies and early eighties. At first it went mainly with products, such as jewelry or cars, and purveyors, such as hotels, restaurants, or fancy stores (high-end boutique or mall, for example), and soon the consumers themselves — a high-end buff, say, who buys only the finest stereo equipment, or a high-end traveler, one who flies first class and stays at fancy resorts. And of course computerese soon got hold of it to describe single pieces of equipment, entire systems, or larger processes still, as in the abstract phrase “high-end computing,” which referred to the capabilities of an entire complex of mainframes.

“High-end” has a wider field than it did thirty years ago, but the process has been gradual and unobtrusive. Today it’s not unusual to see “higher-end,” another way to say the same thing, but “highest-end” is rare at best. It is not clear to me why the superlative has not taken hold, particularly because “high-end” is common in advertising and merchandising, in which fields no one ever went broke overusing overstatement. But higher-end almost seems back-handed, a way to refer to the superior quality of something without being too elitist about it, whereas “highest-end” sounds more like you’re rubbing everyone else’s nose in how expensive and awesome your stuff is. Anyway, “high-end” already constitutes a superlative of sorts, and perhaps for that reason the superlative feels superfluous.

I always enjoy pausing over rich words and phrases, and “high” is one of the richest, even though here it is used about as simply and straightforwardly as imaginable. But the word has any number of associations: intoxication, royalty, whether native or assumed (“highness,” “high and mighty”), urgency (“high time”), the ethical or moral (“high ground,” “high road”), exaltation, anything speeded up or intense. They all convey in common a sense of something beyond the ordinary. “High” rarely means “low,” even in these ironic times; it reliably implies that its object is above the norm, whatever or wherever that is.

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plus one

(2000’s | journalese (society page)? | “date,” “guest”)

Now a staple of the younger set, “plus one” is a companion, usually temporary, for a social event, such as a wedding. No particular connection is implied; in fact, the term may suggest casual relations at best, maybe even just the only person you could scrounge up. (But it’s also possible to have a regular plus one who becomes a reliable escort, or to bring a good friend to an event they would enjoy.) Occasionally the phrase is used when a stronger connection is understood, and that related but distinct meaning may be gaining ground gradually. It bears some relation to “arm candy,” but whereas arm candy has to be attractive, the plus one has no particular attributes. Arm candy is a plus one, but a plus one probably isn’t arm candy.

“Plus one” could easily devolve into meaning any companion for a social occasion; the implication of the ad hoc acquaintance, sufficient for this party or that bowling night, may disappear into a broader, sloppier term. Another usage note: “plus one” is used sometimes to refer to an accessory (as in make-up or jewelry) — in that case, the connotation changes and the plus one becomes more of a sine qua non, required whenever you’re out in public.

The phrase may be a Briticism, but I can’t tell. The earliest example coughed up by LexisNexis is from 1998, in a British source, but it turns up in both U.K. and U.S. press, and I couldn’t trace a distinct origin. Some early uses suggested a different meaning in context — something like a ticket or pass that one is granted so that one can bring a friend — but it is not plain to me that that was ever a true definition of the term. There’s something frustratingly inconclusive about this expression. Can’t tell where it came from or isolate variant meanings. Some nerve.

plus size

(1980’s | businese (fashion) | “full-figured”)

Not present in the mainstream press in 1980, but definitely there by 1990. “Plus-size” has become a relatively neutral way to refer to women (as far as I can tell, the term is applied invariably to women) who are normal-size Americans or larger, or their apparel. For decades, we are told, designers made clothes only for thin women; anyone bigger than size 6 had to settle for cheap sweaters, or dowdy stretch pants, or spend the money to have their outfits custom-made. (Lane Bryant was a pioneer in selling clothing designed for such women, and it’s still around. The male version of that is the “big and tall store.” But “plus-size” doesn’t modify “store.”) Somewhere around 1980, couturiers noticed that a lot of women fit that description, and decided to see if they would pay for designer clothes. There is still some bias toward skinny models in the fashion industry, but plus-size women have come a long way since 1990. That’s an old American story: for decades, centuries, we’ve discriminated against this or that group of people for whatever reason. One day, someone notices that those people have money. Then the gold rush begins, the market is cultivated, and a few decades later, it is no longer o.k. to discriminate against that group. Groups that don’t have money, of course, remain on the shit list.

The plus-size revolution isn’t only a matter of business. It has gone along with a movement encouraging women to accept their bodies without guilt or mortification of the flesh. Part of that is finding expressions that are not off-putting or down-putting (if that’s a word); it’s difficult to think of older terms that did not bear at least some condescension. Customers will spend more freely if they feel welcome, reason the advertisers, who more adeptly than just about anyone else avoid offensive language or imagery, not out of civic motives, but from a desire to keep the income rolling in from as many wallets as possible. The hypersensitive left is generally blamed for the ascendancy of political correctness, and the righteous right uses that story very successfully for fundraising purposes. But advertisers have a lot more power to drag society in one direction or other than a few thousand professors, foundation heads, activists, and politicians.

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lean in

(2010’s | athletese? | “give your all”)

I sense the need for an anatomy of this odd expression, changed forever by Google and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg. The first fork in the family tree branch generates “lean in” and “lean into.” The latter has been used for some time by sportscasters to denote exerting extra force in a certain direction (as a batter leaning into a pitch), or shifting weight on a skateboard or in a car to assist the steering (leaning into a curve). “Lean in” is more complicated. At the simplest level, it denotes a motion or posture understood to express attention, interest, or excitement. That is, it’s another way to say “lean toward.” Some time after 2000, the phrase became an adjective current among advertisers and entertainment executives, as in “lean-in experience” or “lean-in factor.” The latter was typically used in connection with exciting moments on television, conjuring the image of audience members on the edge of their seats, breathlessly awaiting the next utterance. “Lean in” has another application as well, as an antonym of “lean back” or “back away” — that is, as the opposite of taking it easy or retreating. In such contexts, leaning in is a sign of toughness and resolve. That would seem to be the most direct ancestor of Sandberg, but I don’t think it’s much older. The earlier athletic usage has a claim as well.

Sheryl Sandberg published her book in 2013, though she was quoted using the phrase before that. She preached ambition and assertiveness for women in the work force, or, as Lovely Liz from Queens summarized: women need to act more like men. Sandberg’s dicta have permeated the culture and spawned a women’s empowerment movement; the Lean In Foundation is a big organization, helping women all over the world learn from each other and move up the ladder. Yet a Washington Post writer declared the Lean In movement dead at the end of last year, after Michelle Obama drove a stake through its heart. More recently, Marissa Orr published a critique of Sandberg called “Lean Out.” Will “lean out” take its place alongside “lean in”? Will Sandberg’s addition to the lexicon lose momentum? Stay tuned . . .

It all starts with “lean,” which is tricky because it may suggest both a casual or relaxed tendency and much more concentrated force, as in the cases of “lean in” and “lean into.” “Lean” strictly speaking denotes any departure from the vertical in a normally upright object, and at least when people and animals do it, we usually have a specific purpose; we lean toward something or someone. “Lean in” has always shared that sense of purposefulness. To reach its present eminence, it had to lose its appendages, a step in the evolution of several expressions, including “give back” (other examples here). “Leaning in” once was invariably followed by “a certain direction,” “favor,” etc. Now it is a set phrase all on its own. In most similar cases, this slimming process results from a distillation of a number of competing longer phrases into a single shorter one. But in this case, the casting off seems to have come with the establishment of a new definition, imbuing the phrase with attributes of superior dedication and willpower. Not boiling down, but striding forth in a new direction.

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(1980’s | businese | “marketing (strategy),” “image”)

You are wondering about the connection between branding oneself or one’s organization and branding cattle, so I will tell you. They are both ways of marking salable property. Your brand is the quality, whatever it may be, that sets you apart from the competition, just as branding a calf designates it exclusive property. A possible intermediary would be “brand” used as a verb meaning “accuse someone of being,” as in “he branded his opponent a liar.” (The occurrence of “as” in between the object and the article was already possible in 1980, though perhaps less common then.) “Branding” in this sense is the act of pinning a disagreeable attribute on someone, but “brand” does not refer to the scarlet A that dogs the victim (à la Hawthorne). Nowadays, individuals and organizations improve their brands — which would have sounded very strange back on the range — in order to increase their appeal, rather than repulse customers. It is the flavor or feature or je ne sais quoi that renders them more worthy of the sacred ritual of opening the wallet. It must be tenderly nurtured and aggressively developed, with much overtime and expensive consultation.

Not just for-profit businesses; universities, foundations, hospitals, even nations are expected to burnish their brands in order to attract more people and make themselves more relevant — that is, closer to the money spigot. Just as IT departments became necessary a generation ago, branding consultants (or in-house staff) are now de rigueur for any business serious about staying in business. Anything an organization does to increase its status or revenue might qualify as a branding venture. For now, at least, it remains grounded in consumer behavior; the true measure of branding success is consumer appeal. Thus such projects tend to take on an anxious or abject tone; consumers are capricious gods whose whims must be catered to in order to part them from their money. Americans have seen a steady erosion of their political power for a century or more. To some extent it has been replaced by consumer power, but consumers don’t get to hire and fire corporate executives.

“Brand” and “branding” broke new ground in the eighties; it was rare before then to see either term as we use it now. By 1990 they both showed up regularly in the business press, though not perhaps in everyday vocabulary. One team of researchers defined “brand” as consisting of three components: “physical make-up, functional characteristics, and characterization — i.e., personality.” “Branding” goes with words like “messaging” (conveying a selling point) and “positioning” (proving yourself superior to the competition). “Brand” meaning simply “name of manufacturer” or “name of particular product” has been superseded, though it has not disappeared. It’s not enough to be Heinz or Kleenex any more. Heinz and Kleenex have to get out there every day and prove they’re better, or at least more compelling. You can’t just maintain a good reputation and rest your name on it. You have to build, respond, and work, work, work to make sure you remain irresistible.

There seems to be a strong tendency in corporate America to find or create new methods and theories of improving sales or employee retention or customer loyalty (cf. the recent entry on “emotional intelligence“). They don’t all involve branding directly, but they do involve purchasing books, hiring consultants, and supporting researchers who seem more and more like a parasitic class, feeding off their high-powered hosts and justifying it by dispensing advice that doesn’t — and can’t — work most of the time, because in most fields winners must always be in the minority. Even if you follow your consultant’s report to the letter, it probably won’t improve your market share much. But another consultant will come along next year, and you’ll have to shell out for that one, too. It’s just another way to make the money trickle down, I suppose, but one can’t help but wish that all these corporate geniuses might put a bit more effort into innovation and investment than convincing us by more or less fraudulent and manipulative means that we should buy their product. Maybe it will turn out that the best long-term branding strategy is finding a gizmo nearly everyone uses and making it better than anyone else can. But it’s a lot easier to talk about what the logo should look like and where it should go than to re-envision the entire chain of people and duties required to improve the merchandise. The point is not the product, it’s your ability to convince the gullible to pony up. I’m beginning to think we should put P.T. Barnum on our money, not George Washington or Harriet Tubman.

This is the five hundredth expression I have written about, assuming I’ve counted correctly. I encourage everyone to head over to the alphabetical entry list and look around to see if I’ve covered a favorite expression, or a pet peeve. If so, comment! If not, send it in (usagemaven at verizon dot net).

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