When I play too much spider solitaire before bedtime my brain gets too buzzy so I often make up pub quiz style questions for myself to stop me seeing stacks of cards every time I close my eyes. Last night I started pondering on the whole brand name to verb phenomenon.
I only managed to come up with three before I fell asleep (as you can see it’s a very affective sleeping technique):
To google: e.g. ‘I can’t stop googling him.’
To hoover: e.g. ‘Fuck you, I hoovered last time.’
To fabreeze: ‘We had to fabreeze the car after we took the cats to the vet.’ (I have a feeling this is not as widespread outside of my family.)
After I searched for further information using the online search engine google (or ‘googled it’) I realised I had stupidly left out gems such as:
To skype: e.g. ‘Can you not hoover while I skype?’
To photoshop: e.g. ‘You should see what it looked like before we photoshopped it.’
Unsurprisingly enough, branding experts are fully aware of this and go to lengthy pains to ‘verb up’ product names. Often it is an embarrassing flop. Attempts to get people ‘binging’ things and asking each other if we ‘yahoo?’ feel skin-crawlingly lame. Twitter’s attempt to continually ram their entire brand down our throats also involves the creating of an additional product-verb ‘to tweet.’ I have always had a strong but unexplainable dislike for Twitter, and I have yet to meet a real human being that has ever ‘tweeted.’ I have suspicion that my (previously unconscious) aversion to Twitter lurks in this patronising attempt to make ‘tweeting’ the latest groovy slang used by far-out hip cats, but as of yet only seems to be used by guardian journalists and politicians.
(Again) unsurprisingly enough, it seems Americans are especially susceptible to ‘verbing-up.’ Whereas we are content to photocopy something, Americans prefer to ‘xerox’ (pronounced in a heavily nasal accent.) The word xerox is only of use to English people as a particularly awesome triple word score in scrabble (despite the fact that scrabble only has contains one x.)
There is also a particularly American twang surrounding verbs such as ‘fed-exing’ or ‘blackberrying.’ Some totally flounder out of cultural context such as ‘swiffering’ (meaning mopping) or ‘krogering’ (meaning shopping in a supermarket called Kroger.) I guess you had to be there…
‘Verbed up’ English brand names sound a bit bizarre:. ‘I’ve Woolworthed the kid’s school uniforms.’ ‘I’m going to First Great Western it to Scarborough this weekend.’ ‘I got totally White Lightninged last night.’
What makes one product-verb catch on and another ‘bing’ (a.k.a depressingly and embarrassingly flop)? Obviously, branding experts have made it into a fine science which can be reduced to a few simple rules:
- The product should already sound a bit like a verb (e.g. bing = sing, ring, ping) or, better yet, actually be a verb (e.g. twitter.)
- The product should be an uber-new and unique experience, so much so that our pathetic human world hasn’t even got the vocabulary to describe it yet. (In fact, there usually are words to describe products but normal humans get confused by terms such as ‘contact me by VoIP telephony’ and prefer the jazzy ‘skype me honey!’)
- You should casually slip the verb in to all promotional material/conversation with friends and family, relentlessly pretending it already is a verb.
After that it is all up to chance. Leave the hordes to decide if they will chew it up or spit it out. The product stands barely any chance of making it but bear in mind that ‘verbing delights our brains.’ We like using the comforting, fuddy-duddy medium of grammar to help us better understand and express exactly what is going on in our increasingly hectic and bewilderingly modern world. If we didn’t have product verbs our brains would melt into a puddle by the sheer disparity between the decades, and we would start worshiping Steve Jobs in tribalistic sacrifice ceremonies presided over by staff members of Apple Corps muttering incomprehensible html codes.
However, the overuse of brand-verbs tends to make you sound like a human telegram or some mad, overworked career woman that gets a buzz of tight deadlines:
B: Hey, it’s Dave. Just wondering if you are up for a barbeque at ours this weekend?
A: No can do Dave. I’m Megabussing it to London Saturday because I’ve got to Ryan Air it to Dublin and Powerpoint to HQ and I’ll probably be Travel Inning there Saturday night. But I’ll give you a Nokia Sunday. Look, sorry Dave but I’ve got to go, I’m in the middle of an Asda. CLICK
Despite being mind-numbingly huge, Facebook has (at least as far as I am aware) not caught on as a verb. Perhaps as Facebook has a bewildering range of functions and uses, the verb ‘facebooking’ would be too vague to make any sense. Instead, we have invented some more specific (and disturbing) spin off verbs such as ‘to facebook stalk’ and ‘to facebook rape/frape.’ Similarly, you can ‘google earth’, ‘google map’, ‘google translate’, and apparently ‘google bomb’ and ‘google whack’ although the later sound geek-specific.
Facebook also ingeniously highjacked the verb ‘to like’ so successfully that conversation such as ‘Did you see that link on Dave’s wall?’ “Yeah, I liked it’ have become totally ambiguous unless you are able to read the subtle inflections on the word. Perhaps as Facebook expands to fill every nook and cranny of modern life there will no reason to distinguish between the two like’s.
Mega brands have a bit of love/hate relationship with the ‘brand up’ phenomenon. If they are not trying to desperately get us to use their products in daily use, they are desperately trying to stop us using it as a generic across the board term for similar products. After getting Webster’s Dictionaried, Google have been rapidly losing control of the term which has started to be applied to using any and type of search engine, putting ‘googling’ in danger of going the same way as rollerblading, zipping, videotaping and jet-skiing. Lack of control over your product-verb is commonly referred to as ‘genericide.’ However, some brands that are ahead of the curve like the smug tweets at Twitter have announced that they will not seek legal injunctions against those using the term for third party Twitter-related services and applications as long as it not used in a manner that is “confusing or damaging to our project … to protect both users and our brand.” At the risk of receiving a legal injunction FUCK YOU THOUGHT POLICE!Q
A subject for further exploration would be the product-adjective phenomenon which works brilliantly in day to day conversation. For example, whole streams of personality description and background information can be simply shortened to ‘she’s a bit…Boden.’
Brands are not as keen on the product-adjective as the product-verb as adjectives tend to involve negative preconceptions dictated by snootiness and/or bitchiness. It would not be very kind to say someone’s new house as really ‘DFS’ or to describe someone as being ‘Daily Mail.’ However, brands have only got themselves to blame for that Frankenstein’s Monster.