From brand names to generic names

I thought this article from the BBC about the death of brand names was interesting. While it almost seems good to get a brand name used frequently by people, there is a danger of it becoming disassociated from the brand. Mentioned examples such as Jacuzzi, Escalator and Frisbee definitely seem like generic terms now. I cannot imagine calling bubble wrap anything other than bubble wrap!

However, there are a few ‘generic’ terms in the article that don’t seem so generic to me. I would never say ‘hoover the house’ but always ‘vacuum the house’. For me ‘Hoover’ is still linked to the brand and sounds a lot more American than British.

Hoover was patented in 1927 and the first recorded use of hoover used in another way, as a verb, was the same year. This use was interesting in that it was used in its advertising: a ‘Hoovered’ room. Nowadays companies, such as Google, strive to prevent the use of their name in this way instead of as an advertising tool. Turning a brand name into a verb can cause it to become generic and disoriented from the brand. Google has rules governing its trademark to prevent its use as anything other than an adjective, such as ‘Google search engine’. Twitter has also expressed concern about ‘Tweet’ being used to refer to a comment.

Google was launched in 1998 and the same year Google is recorded as being used as an intransitive verb (a verb without a direct object; such as “I googled, but couldn’t find the address”) and as a transitive verb (a verb with a direct object; for example, “I googled the address”)

While dissuading people from using it as a verb might help prevent its transition to mean ‘I used a search engine’, it might be too late.

Does a word itself make it more likely to become generic or is it the popularity of the brand? Google, googled, googling is easy to say, while Binging or Yahooing seems slightly cumbersome. Is one word more likely to become generic than another?


Emoji and emoticon

Last week’s OED word of the day was emoji: an icon used to show an emotion in computer mediated communication. It’s apparently from Japanese emoji (pictograph) made up of e (meaning picture) and moji (meaning letter). I was surprised to read that its similarity to emoticon is a coincidence. Emoticon (a facial expression made up of keyboard characters to show emotion) is composed of emot- from emotion + icon.

Because of their similar meanings and initial spellings, I had assumed they shared the same formation. While the vast majority of the words beginning with ’emot-‘ are related to emotion, it seems emo-, without being followed by the letter t, actually isn’t linked to emotional meanings. The exception to this is the word emo, first recorded in 1988. 


The lexical richness of hiphop

Someone has done a study to look at the richness of vocabulary used by some hiphop artists, compared with Shakespeare and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The study, by Matt Daniels, looked at the type/token ratio (TTR) in texts. This is how many unique words there are in a text compared with the total number of words. This is a rough measurement of the difficulty of understanding a text and of the text’s lexical richness. For it to be comparable you need to use the same length texts. In the study he looked at the first 35,000 lyrics or words of each artist.

He mentions some problems with the measurement, such as the variation in spelling to indicate pronunciation, but TTR is only intended as a general guide anyway. The results show that while most hiphop artists use a less wide vocabulary than Shakespeare, a few use a wider vocabulary in their lyrics. Some even use a wider variety of language than Melville.

TTR is crude, but fine for giving a gist. I’d like to think this study might lessen some people’s perception about Shakespeare being difficult to read, rather than show anything about the complexity of hiphop lyrics! It’s also a good study for making linguistics ‘cool’.


Nocuous or noxious

This is why I keep a blog:

Me: “Mum, the OED’s word of the day is fascinating, it’s-”
Mum: “-Mhm, that’s nice.”

Apparently although I’m in my twenties I haven’t grown out of the 10-year-old me’s need to share ‘facts’ that other people don’t find remotely interesting. This blog is really in existence because I need somewhere to ramble about things I find cool.

The word of the day today is nocuous, adj: ‘Noxious, hurtful; venomous, poisonous’. (1627)

Nocuous comes from classical Latin nocuus (harmful) plus -ous suffix. Nocuus came from nocēre (to hurt, injure) + uus suffix. Innocuous developed later however I had only heard of innocuous, not nocuous.

Noxious stems from classical Latin noxius (harmful, injurious, guilty), from noxa (harm, injury).

Nocuous and noxious have similar meanings. The only difference I can see is noxious can also mean a guilty or irritating person. (Interestingly, its antonym, innoxious, no longer means someone who’s innocent). The earliest recorded use of nocuous is 1627, while noxious is over 100 years earlier. I’m guessing our favouring of one over the other is because they have such similar uses in common English so there was no need for such close synonyms in the language? However, it doesn’t explain why their antonyms don’t follow the same pattern: innocuous is more common than innoxious.

I used Google Ngram Viewer to have a look how often the words and their antonyms appeared in google books.


We can see that noxious is used far more often than the other three words, but it drops in usage until the 1930s when it starts slowly appearing again. Innocuous slowly increases in usage until it’s now used as often as noxious. Innoxious and nocuous are used a lot less often and so don’t show up well on the graph.

I took off noxious so the pattern of the others is clearer.


It looks like nocuous was never particularly commonly used in writing. While innoxious was more commonly used than innocuous at one point it drops steadily in the 1840s when innocuous gains usage.

The trends are similar when we look at just their uses in fiction, suggesting that a scientific use isn’t skewing the results. I wish I knew why we use noxious and innocuous, but not their opposites innoxious and nocuous. From the second graph we can see that noxious and innoxious were originally the preferred terms, as I’d expect, but that this changes in the 1800s.

I really love the inconsistency of language.