The Grammarphobia Blog

Is Brooklyn a brand?

Q: I’m catching up on some WNYC podcasts and just heard Pat and Lennie discuss the affection for (dare I call it the “brand”) Brooklyn. This is nothing new, of course. When I studied Russian poetry, I read “I Love You Brooklyn Bridge” by Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930). I can’t find any reference to the poem online, unfortunately.

A: Yes, Pat discussed the expansive use of the term “brand” during her appearance in November on the Leonard Lopate Show. She and Lennie, as you mention, noted that Brooklyn had become a “brand” both here and in Europe.

Parisians, for example, speak of hip things as being très Brooklyn. Swedes in particular seem to love Brooklyn and Brooklyn-made products.

(Business Week reported in October that outside of New York, the biggest market for the craft beer made by Brooklyn Brewery is Sweden.)

By the way, Mayakovsky’s 1925 poem (it’s called simply “Brooklyn Bridge”) is included in Writing New York, a 1998 anthology edited by Lennie’s brother, the essayist and poet Phillip Lopate.

“Mayakovsky, who promoted the legend of himself as a larger-than-life Bolshevik dynamo, salutes the bridge as one outsized force to another,” Phillip writes in his introduction to the poem.

Getting back to the subject of branding, when we say Brooklyn is a brand, we’re using “brand” in the sense of a public image, not just a name or logo that identifies a company or product. In other words, “brand” has jumped the corporate fence.

Today, Brooklyn isn’t alone in being called a “brand.” These days, colleges and universities, sororities and fraternities, hospitals and libraries—even churches!—refer on their web pages to what they call “our brand.”

But perhaps the most ubiquitous new “brands” are people. Celebrities—artists, authors, chefs, architects, entertainers, and athletes—have all been called “brands.”

We’re told, for instance, that Beyoncé is a now a global brand. Oprah is a brand. Madonna is restoring her brand. The tennis star Maria Sharapova is building a brand.

We read about the damage to the Lance Armstrong brand, or the Paula Deen brand, or the Miley Cyrus brand.

Even part of you can become a brand. The Bollywood actor Ram Kapoor, who’s a little portly, has said he doesn’t want to get slimmer because “my physique has become a brand.”

A recent article in the New York Times referred to the “Kardashian brand,” and said Kim Kardashian’s brand may conflict with the brand of her boyfriend Kanye West (though he’s publicly said, “I love her brand”).

“ ‘Brand’ is an overused word,” wrote the Times reporter, Alessandra Stanley, “but it is so imprinted on the ethos of entertainment that those who have one no longer distinguish between a private label and a personal identity.”

What “brand” means in this sense, as we’ve said, is something like public image. It means what pops into people’s minds when they hear your name.

And as one WNYC listener wrote to Pat after the broadcast, the use of “brand” also means you have something to sell.

Clearly, the word “brand” has come a long way in the last millennium or so.

When it first showed up in Beowulf as bronde, as far back as the eight century, it meant fire or destruction by fire, according the Oxford English Dictionary.

At around the same time, the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says, it was used in the sense of a piece of burning wood or a sword, probably because of the glint of light flashing off the blade.

Later, in the 16th century, “brand” came to mean the mark made by burning something with a hot iron, either to cauterize a wound or as a proof of possession.

Because criminals were sometimes branded, the word “brand” took on a figurative sense in the late 16th century—a  mark of disgrace or infamy.

The use of “brand” as a verb or noun in reference to the marking of cattle or horses originated in 17th-century colonial America, according to the OED.

The modern sense of “brand” as a trademark emerged in the 18th century. Oxford says this use of “brand” originally meant a mark, imprinted by burning or some other means, on a cask of wine or other product.

Then in 19th century, a brand came to mean a product carrying such a mark or name.  Later in that same century, as an outgrowth of the trademark usage, “brand” was used to mean kind or type, as in a “brand of humor.”

 It wasn’t until the 1950s that advertising companies began selling clients on the idea of the “brand image”—the image their advertising created in the minds of consumers. While this was usually applied to commercial products, it was sometimes also used in reference to people.

Of the standard dictionaries we’ve checked, only The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) recognizes a meaning close to public image.

The AH entry for “brand” has this as one of its senses: “An association of positive qualities with a widely recognized name, as of a product line or celebrity.”

As for the phrase “brand-new,” it doesn’t mean so new that the label is still attached. (It also isn’t written “bran new,” without the “d,” supposedly because new and fragile items were often packed in bran.)

As we’ve written on the blog, “brand-new” is a 16th-century expression that means “as if fresh and glowing from the furnace.” The “brand” referred to was a piece of iron glowing in the flames (Shakespeare used the phrase “fire-new”).

You didn’t ask, but we’ll end with a question of our own: where did English get the word “brand”?

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the ultimate source is the ancient German root bran- or bren-, which has given us such fiery words as “burn,” “brandy,” and perhaps “broil.”

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