language change and slang online English


Online English month continues with a guest post from writer, editor, lecturer, broadcaster and blogger David Crystal. Professor Crystal’s most recent book The Story of English in 100 Words is published on 6th October by Profile Books.


It’s the penalty of linguistic success. You invent a name for your product, and it takes off. Everybody starts using it, and before you know it, it’s become a generic noun in the language. You may not like it, as (after all) it was the name you chose, but there’s very little you can do about it.

Dozens of words have been through this scenario. One of the first was escalator. Various designs for moving staircase were invented in the 19th century, but the rights to the name escalator were purchased by the Otis Elevator Company. It is first recorded in 1900, and within a few years it was being used figuratively. People talked of escalator clauses in contracts, for example. The verb to escalate appears in the 1920s, and escalation soon after. Otis tried hard to retain their control over the name, but in 1950 a court case concluded that the word had developed a generic meaning among the public, referring to any kind of ‘moving stairway’ and not just Otis’s original design. Otis lost.

Several trademarks have become generic, over the years, such as aspirin, butterscotch, heroin, hoover, thermos, yo-yo, and zipper. Fedex, lego, meccano, kleenex, portakabin, rollerblade, and hoover have also become lower-case in some of their uses. A few companies have fought a battle to retain the rights over their name. Xerox Corporation, for example, has generally succeeded in persuading people to say photocopy instead of xerox. But most realize that they can’t do much about controlling everyday usage.

Internet names are the latest to attract generic use. The popularity of the Slashdot website has generated a verb: to be slashdotted is to be overwhelmed with messages. Google has generated to google, meaning ‘to search for information on the Internet’, regardless of which search engine is being used. Google has tried to prevent this extension in meaning, so far with some success. Several dictionaries (including the Macmillan Dictionary) now define the verb with reference to its originator, such as (in the Oxford English Dictionary) ‘to use the Google search engine to find information on the Internet’. But whether this recognition has a long-term future, in the face of the steamroller of usage, remains to be seen.

Apple terms are going down the same road. The Mac App, first used in 1985, quickly generated apps in general. The idea of an application had been around for over twenty years, but shortening it to app was a novelty. It immediately caught on. And soon after, the idea of a killer app arrived. Will similar things happen to other Apple neologisms? We might think that their unusual graphic structure would militate against general use. The lower-case ‘i’ in iMac, iBook, iPod, iPad, iTunes, iPhone, iPhoto, iStore and so on, goes against the orthographic norms of the language. It’s certainly a complication, as anyone knows who has tried to write a sentence beginning with one of these names: the lower-case initial looks very odd. But it hasn’t stopped others using the prefix, as seen with iGoogle, iPlayer and a number of online sites, such as iCoke (Coca-Cola) and iSense (Adpepper Media). There are even TV shows and novels beginning with it, such as the iCarly series, with titles such as iAm Famous and iGo to Japan. i- looks as if it is going the same way as e-. The penalty of isuccess.

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David Crystal

1 Comment

  • iCaramba! I grew up thinking hoover was the primary term; only in late childhood or my early teens did I learn that it was originally a brand name. Ditto biro vs. pen.

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