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Wordsleuth (2006, vol. 3, 2): Brand Awareness

Katherine Barber
(Language Update, Volume 3, Number 2, 2006, page 32)

From the time they take their first mouthful of Pablum or their first bounce in a Jolly Jumper, Canadians are exposed to brand names that have become part of our language.

I was standing at the grocery checkout with a bottle of no-name bleach recently. "Do you want a bag for your Javex?" asked the cashier. It would strike any Canadian as absurd to say, "This isn’t Javex, this is just bleach!", so ingrained is the generic use of this trade name in our linguistic makeup. Javex (pronounced jaVEX by many Newfoundlanders) is just one of our very own trade names. Canadians even use javex as a verb, as in "I was javexing my undies."

The name Javex has an interesting etymology. Bleach was known for a time as Javel water, which was a translation of the French eau de Javel which in turn comes from Javel, a village, now part of Paris, where a solution of sodium hypochlorite was first used as bleach. In Quebec, you still sometimes see Javel water on bleach labels and in some texts whose writers are strongly influenced by French.

Trade names that we take for granted could cause us problems when we’re travelling. Say you come down with motion sickness; your first Canadian instinct is to go to the drugstore for some Gravol (it doesn’t matter if it’s the actual Gravol brand or the generic dimenhydrinate pills; who ever asks for dimenhydrinate in Canada?). If you were to ask for Gravol in an American or British drugstore, they would think, perplexedly, that you are asking for gravel. The trade name they use is Dramamine.

Likewise, if you sprain something, a request for a Tensor bandage will get you nowhere in the U.S., where elasticized bandages are known by another trade name, Ace bandages.

If you have a headache, Aspirin is, fortunately, a word that is recognized throughout the English-speaking world. In fact, outside of Canada, it has lost its trade name status altogether. But in Canada, only Bayer has the legal right to call its tablets of acetylsalicylic acid Aspirin. As a result, Canadians have another name for the substance, ASA (the full form being a bit of a mouthful!). Although most Canadians are unlikely to ask for an ASA when they have a headache, they are at least familiar with the abbreviation, unlike other speakers of English.

Now consider the predicament of this person:

How many cans of varsol it’s going to take us before we get his fingers de-crazy-glued from his reading glasses is anybody’s guess, but we won’t give up until we finally free him.

Onset, Oct./Nov. 1994, p. 11

Let’s hope he doesn’t crazy-glue himself in the States, where no one would know that Varsol is mineral spirits (the name, coined by Imperial Oil, is a blend of varnish-maker’s solvent).

While we’re in the hardware department, imagine the perplexity of someone confronted with the problem of opening a crate fastened with Robertson screws without a Robertson screwdriver! The very efficient Robertson screwdriver was invented in the early 20th century by a businessman in Milton, Ontario, but unfortunately has not caught on outside of Canada.

Confusion could also be caused by another very common trade name, Arborite. The laminate used for countertops and tables is known only as Formica in other countries. In Britain, Arborite is a toxic substance that you put on tree stumps to cause them to rot. The British must wonder why Canadians have so much of it in their kitchens!

Another thing that Canadians may have in their kitchen is a bag of Cheezies. Apparently these cheese snacks, which have been part of the Canadian diet since 1949, are called "cheese doodles" by Americans.

A fairly recent entrant in the Canadian trade name sweepstakes is the interesting verb purolate meaning to ship by courier, derived of course from Purolator, the name of a Canadian courier company. Although we have not yet added it to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, it is definitely a candidate for the third edition, since a recent Google search found almost 700 examples of it, including use in the Ontario legislature.

So the next time you take a Gravol to combat queasiness brought on by eating too many Cheezies and then inhaling the fumes when javexing down your Arborite countertops, just think how very Canadian you are being!