Q: I had my hair cut the other day and as usual the stylist asked me whether I wanted her to use any product. When did “product” enter our vocabulary as something you buy at a salon?
A: The noun “product,” which first showed up in English in the 15th century as a mathematical term, has taken on many other meanings since then.
The sense you’re asking about (“any commercial preparation used to style the hair”) appeared in the late 20th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.
The earliest example in the OED is from the April 27, 1989, issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “The key to making mascara work is ‘to make sure that there is not too much product on it.’ ”
The dictionary notes that the term “product” is occasionally used to mean a cosmetic, which may be how it’s being used in that first example.
Here’s a clearly hairy example from the June 25, 2001, issue of New York Magazine: “I don’t wash my hair or even rinse it after the beach—I just put a lot of product in to make it shiny.”
When the noun “product” first showed up in English, according to the OED, it was far removed from the hair salon. It referred to “the quantity obtained by multiplying two or more quantities together.”
The dictionary’s first citation, written around 1450, is from the Art of Nombryng, a translation of De Arte Numerandi, a 13th-century treatise sometimes attributed to the monk Johannes de Sacrobosco.
The anonymous Middle English translator of the Latin treatise refers to the “product or provenient, of takyng out of one fro another, as twyes 5 is 10.”
Over the years, the OED notes, this sense of “product” has been widely used to mean “any of various other entities (as matrices, permutations, sets, tensors, vectors, etc.) obtained by certain defined processes of combination of two or more entities.”
Other senses of “product” include someone or something produced by a natural process (1600), the value of goods produced (1793), something produced for sale (1825), creative work considered marketable (1974), and illicit drugs (1983).
In other words, “product” has had a very productive life.