The ideas for my blog posts often come to me when I’m nowhere near a computer, so I scribble something down on a bit of paper and come back to it later. Or, more likely, forget about it until the next time I remember it. So I tend to accumulate a collection of disparate thoughts which eventually, if they’re lucky, get transformed into a blog.

With this post, I will dispose of three themes that have come up at intervals in the past year or two, all of them connected with the general topic of the names we give to things. I have collected them under this heading to acknowledge Henry Reed’s famous war poem of the same name, which I will probably eventually post under the “Poetry” thread.

Brand Names as Nouns

The absorption of brand names into everyday language is something that I find slightly annoying, although it’s not easy to explain why. The most common example is probably “hoover” as a noun or verb associated with vacuum cleaners. It has the advantage, not only of having half the number of syllables of the generic term, but looking the part too: lots of words ending in “er” are “doing” words, so a “hoover” sounds about right, although (thank goodness) we don’t seem to have progressed from that to the verb “to hoove” …

Another word in common usage is “portakabin” for a temporary building. Some people may not realise that this is in fact a trade mark, not just a word someone made up to describe such buildings in general. I remember hearing once that the Portakabin company objected to someone using the word in its generic sense, which seemed an odd reaction to me. After all, if you have created a product that is so popular that it has become a household name, you surely ought to be jolly pleased that people use it in the wider context!

The company responsible for my third example certainly don’t think like that. If you look at the Tannoy website you will find them crowing about the fact that “few companies’ products have such a profound impact on our lives that their names enter the dictionary as generic descriptions for their inventions …” And fair enough, Tannoy was established in 1926, and might well have a justifiable claim to have pioneered the world of public address – although the name actually comes from an alloy they invented for use in certain rectifiers. Yet the use of the word as shorthand for “public address” always bothers me. That is perhaps understandable, given that I have spent most of my working life designing, testing, commissioning and maintaining railway public address systems, and never in all the 26 years I was doing that did I come across a Tannoy product! I feel it is belittling the whole concept of PA in some way to describe it in terms of a commercial name. And I have never been so (t)annoyed at hearing it as when, recently, a train guard, using the in-train PA system, apologised for misleading announcements made “over the Tannoy” at East Croydon station. I felt that, as “one of us”, he should have known better!

ADDENDUM: Well, what do you know? Last night (13 March 2014) I went to a meeting and saw this – my first ever sighting of a Tannoy product!


Official Words

I often find it amusing that certain words appear in the press and in official notices that would never be used in conversation. There are obvious examples without even straying too far from the railway theme of the last section – for instance, who on earth, except for an automated announcing system, would think of using the word “alight” for getting off a train?

There is, I think, sometimes a tendency for the authors of official notices, press statements etc choosing a word with connotations to match what they are saying. Staying on the railways for now, we all know that train operating companies hate people taking bicycles on trains. So when you look at their official policies, notices etc you will find that these contraptions are always referred to as “cycles”, Now, I very rarely hear people referring to their own bicycle as a “cycle”; it is more often just a “bike”. “Cycle” is fine as a verb, but no-one says “I went on my cycle”. So “cycle” as a noun takes on the same sort of official aura as “alight”. Hence authorities wishing to have nothing to do with these annoying, space-occupying, non-fare-paying items will always refer to them as “cycles”.

The last example in this category confuses two quite different things. Increasingly nowadays, in the press, advertising etc, the places we go to buy things are referred to as “stores”. Now, to me, a store is a place where you store things. It is generally recognisable by not having windows; it may be refrigerated, and will generally be quite large and served by an impressive array of fork-lift trucks, which are used to extract the contents and load them onto vans or lorries. These vans or lorries then carry the goods to the place where we buy them, which is called a shop.

OK, this is probably a US usage that has been imported by us, like so many other aspects of American culture; and perhaps in the isolated communities of the early days of European settlements in North America, a shop really had to be a store as well, because deliveries would have been infrequent; so it is maybe understandable, but it is still inappropriate for 21st century Britain. I really can’t think of any other explanation for its use; it is not an abbreviation, since “shop” is even shorter; maybe its use by officialdom is just snobbery.

The shop/store question leads into my final theme, since it has a foot in both camps. This last is the strangest of the lot:

Naming by Subsidiary Attribute

As I’ve explained, storing things is one of the attributes of a shop, but not the main one, which is to sell things. So to call it a store is to deliberately pick out a less important attribute and use it as a name. This I find quite perverse.

The concept of NSA (as I call it, or would if I liked acronyms) first came to my attention when I first heard of floppy discs, way back at the dawn of the personal computer age. I could not for the life of me work out what was so significant about the floppiness of the disc (and in fact a lot of floppy discs, including those used in Amstrad and later IBM-type computers, were decidedly unfloppy-looking as they were enclosed in hard cases). Surely, I thought, the important thing about floppy discs is that they are removable. Well, of course it eventually turned out that the floppiness is an important feature which is necessary for removability, for reasons which would probably be too much of a digression and also might expose my ignorance … but I still say that to most users of the thing, it was the removability that was the main property.

But there are other examples. When I worked on the railways I got involved in the installation of computer-based information systems at some stations, notably Brighton and London Victoria. A key element of such systems was the visual display unit (VDU) used to actually display the information – this was basically a television tube, but was often described as a monitor. Now, a monitor, to me, is a small screen that typically a system controller would use to check (or monitor) that the correct information is being displayed. It is ancillary to the main purpose. It is analogous to the monitor speakers placed near the stage at concerts, which are there for the musicians’ use, and are distinct from the main speakers, used to broadcast the music to the audience. So why use that term for the main information screens?

I have already mentioned another railway oddity earlier in this blog – the Permanent Way. I always wondered why it was called that, and still do – even though I accept that it is indeed permanent, it does seem an odd name, and one that could equally be applied to, say, a motorway. Why not just “track bed” or – the official name – “operational railway”?

Almost as bad is describing something in terms of what it’s not. Thus I have often puzzled over NCO (non-commissioned officer) and NGO (non-governmental organisation). Don’t these things have any positive qualities with which they can be labelled?

Yet another example, and one that, like “store”, straddles the second and third sections of this blog piece, is provided by the places where people live. Now, we all know that “a house is not a home”. But in party political literature, and often in the press too, it seems it is – councils and companies do not build “houses”, they apparently build “homes”. Here, “home” is undoubtedly the principal function of a house, but a home is of course more than just bricks and mortar. But of course a lot of people – and not just people who have bought a house as an investment – refer to these things as “properties”. You might expect estate agents to use that word, but when people use it to refer to where they live, something is surely wrong. Being your “property” is not even a necessary attribute of a home!

I could go on. Well, actually, I have already. But I’m coming to the end of my list. Why do shopkeepers sometimes ask you if you want a “brown bag”? What’s “novel” about a novel? Can you think of any examples of NSA? A free floppy disc to the sender of the most interesting one!