language change and slang Live English

Who signed off on my burrito?

There comes a time in the life of many words when it appears that they have been given more work than they can reasonably accomplish. I popped out to the supermarket to buy lunch the other day—in the form of a modest, microwavable burrito—and decided that such a moment had come for signature. (See the label on the picture at the top of this post).

It was a good burrito: tasty, filling, and adequately nutritious. But it is clearly identified as a signature burrito and that was the part of lunch that I couldn’t quite stomach. This sense of signature, which the OED defines as “Designating a distinctive technique, attribute, product, etc., which is identified or associated with a particular person or thing,” has been so diluted by modern usage as to become meaningless. Specifically, signature is used in such a way today that it has lost any connection with its core meaning: a mark that is uniquely associated with a person and can be used as a means of identification or authenticity.

This sort of signature abuse is not unique to King Soopers, where I bought the burrito, or its parent company Kroger, which is the largest supermarket chain in the United States and the fourth largest retailer in the world. I just wonder who actually signed off on my burrito, given that it was one of perhaps a million nearly identical ones that appeared on grocery shelves the day I bought it. Many other things come in signature varieties these days. There is, for example, the “Signature Support” that is offered by Xfinity, a trademark of Comcast, the largest provider of cable TV and Internet service in the US. If you pay attention during a typical day of modern, first-world consumerism, you will probably find at your disposal a number of offerings in signature varieties: signature handbags, jewelry, cookware, cocktails.

The dilution of signature is an outgrowth of a 20th-century development in the meaning of the word which I alluded to above: when used attributively, signature is a way of characterizing something as uniquely associated with a person—usually because either that person created it or is never seen without it. Here are some contemporary examples:

She wore denim and heels and a signature silver-and-turquoise belt every day.

Drummond applied his signature style to every inch of the room.

Singer Christina Aguilera closed the funeral service with the music legend’s signature song.

The five-course menu will include his signature dish, the Hot and Hot tomato salad with fresh corn, field peas, fried okra, smoked bacon and chive aioli.

The cachet that signature acquires from usages like these makes it irresistible for marketers to broaden its usage—and in the act, effectively destroy the word’s import. It’s part of a general trend in our mechanized, automated, and mass-produced world to promote things that are ordinary and obtainable by anyone as unique or exclusive. A number of other words fall into this same category. Whether it’s a handcrafted latte, artisanal bread, or the bespoke offers that a UK bank is now serving up to its millions of clients, marketers want to make the consumer feel that the acquisition of an ordinary product creates a unique and personal connection between producer and consumer, or that the product gives the consumer a distinction not obtainable by anyone else. Does it work? Not at all, but the widespread use of these product characterizations suggests that marketers imagine that they do.

If you Google the phrase “real people, not machines” you get nearly 600,000 hits. It’s clearly a theme that resonates. One UK bank even emblazons the slogan on its website. As with so many things, however, it’s a case where saying it’s so does not make it so. Nonetheless, we do keep saying it.

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Orin Hargraves


  • Interesting article.
    Do you think the same overuse and dilution applies to ‘smart’? Maybe it’s a word I’m oversensitive to because it’s also my family name, but I feel it gets slapped willy-nilly on everything these days.

  • Interesting question, Catharine. The 21st century usage of “smart” is completely different from what preceded it: some of the most frequent collocations today are smart growth, smart card, smart phone, smart bomb, smart grid, and the like. These were unknown 20 years ago. Some of these terms are bona fide compound nouns, of with “smart phone” is the best example. My sense is that as an attributive modifier, smart hasn’t lost its luster yet but may be on the verge of doing so.

  • Excellent analysis, Orin. As you say, it’s the word’s suggestion of uniqueness and distinctiveness that appeals to consumers and the marketing departments targeting them, but inevitably those connotations will be undermined by widespread commercial exploitation of the term.
    I hadn’t noticed the usage creeping in, but I’ll look out for it now.

  • The data I’ve looked at pretty much matches the categories you mention, Orin: clothes, music, style, and above all food and drink. ‘Signature dish’ is the single commonest combination. Shoes, sneakers, and even soles make a good showing (‘Top brand Christian Louboutin Boots with signature red sole is well-known by most fashionistas’), as do drinks, cocktails, martinis etc. The nearest i could find to a burrito was many refs to signature burgers, some of them alarmingly expensive: ‘My wife had a passble prawn salad, while i tried their signature burger ($28).’. But the word is clearly becoming devalued. I was struck by how many plural examples there were of the (very frequent) combination ‘signature cocktail’, e.g. ‘The Cellar Bar offers signature cocktails, music entertainment and a weeknight, one-hour open bar for hotel guests.’ Surely if it’s signature, there should only be one??

  • Interesting observations, Michael. I think that when ‘signature’ appears on a menu for either food or drink it can be interpreted as a code word for ‘significantly more expensive.’

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