Friday, September 25, 2009


Verbing product names

In the After Deadline blog, New York Times editor Philip Corbett talks about language issues in the newspaper, once a week or so. He goes over things like misuses, homophonic challenges, and wording that’s unnecessarily confusing or ungrammatical. And it shows that even the professionals never seem to learn, making the same errors time and time again.

Of course, if you’ve stared at these pages for long enough, you’ll guess that I must read Mr Corbett’s column regularly.

In his latest, linked above, he addresses the use of trademarked company and product names as verbs:

The folks at Adobe Systems Inc. remind us that “Photoshop” is a registered trademark referring to Adobe’s “digital imaging software products and related services.” It is not, they note, a generic term, and should not be used as a verb to describe the general process of digitally manipulating photographs.
Mr Corbett notes that we commonly do this also with “Twitter” and “Google”.[1] And, indeed, that’s worldwide: a couple of years ago, a Japanese colleague told me that the Japanese word for searching on the Internet is “guguru”, a Japanese pronunciation of “Google”.

At IBM, naturally, we had our own set of those. I’ve not heard people use “Notes” as a verb (though I’m sure that some do), but “I’ll PROFS it to you,” was certainly the vernacular of the Oliver North era. And, where those outside of IBM verb “IM” (for instant messaging), everyone in IBM instead says, “Sametime me the URL.” (Lotus® Sametime® is IBM’s instant messaging product.)

There are lots of older, more esoteric ones, as well. My favourites, which the old-timers will recognize, are APAR and DASD.

An APAR (pronouned AY-par), for “Authorized Program Analysis Report”, was a bug-report against mainframe software. By extension, it also came to be applied to the fix for the bug — more properly called the “APAR fix”, which would comprise one or more PTFs (Program Temporary Fixes) — and, as a verb, to the act of making the report. “Call IBM support and APAR yesterday’s abend.”

DASD (pronouned DAZ-dee), “Direct Access Storage Device”, was the verbose IBM term for disk storage for the mainframes — what we call “hard drives” on PCs. A computer room, in those days, might be filled with quite a lot of DASD. But the term also became a verb: there was a utility program called IEHDASDR,[2] which was used to initialize (what we’d now call “format”) a disk pack, and we’d commonly say things like, “You have to DASD the pack before you can use it.” Less commonly, people would talk about writing any sort of data to disk as, “DASDing the data.”

Many years ago, now-IBM-Fellow Mike Cowlishaw put together an “IBM Jargon” dictionary (gee, almost 30 years ago now; the first version was in 1980, and the last, the tenth, in 1990). It’s an amusing read, which includes many of Mike’s notes that give a view of the history of this stuff. (And Ray, a frequent commenter in these pages, is acknowledged in the preface.) If you check it out, you can look up “abend”, which I used above — its not the German word for “evening”.

[1] He also mentions “Tweet”, but I’m sure I usually see that in lower case, and I don’t think “tweet” is trademarked. The rest of what he says, about the informal feel of it, is certainly still true.

[2] Therein lies another story. Different subsystems of the operating system were given three-letter prefixes — IEB, IEF, IEH, and so on — and all programs associated with a given subsystem used the same prefix in their names. IEBGENER was one of the most well known and frequently used, and IEFBR14 was a program that did nothing at all, used purely to cause the job setup to run.


Sue VanHattum said...

Of course the copyright holders must be thrilled when their invented names become verbs.

I can't think of any older verbs, but there are so many product names that are used as object names, kleenexes, jello, bandaids, cheerios, ...

Barry Leiba said...

Oh, sure, and formica, cellophane, and Teflon, only the last of which retains its trademark status.

Which is why the trademark (not copyright) holders are usually not thrilled. Remember when Robert Young hawked "Sanka® brand decaffeinated coffee"? Sanka was also in danger of becoming generic.

Jim Fenton said...

...and Aspirin, which if I recall retains its trademark status in Canada. Bayer aspirin in the US.

I'm reminded of an open letter I read years ago from Xerox Corporation to Sen. Sam Ervin during the Watergate hearings. Sen. Ervin referred to "Xeroxing documents" which of course was a wording that Xerox wanted to avoid.