Monday, November 14, 2016


Companies are happy when their brand names become generic names. When I started work at CERN I remember that adhesive tapes not only those made by 3M were called Scotch while in Germany I had been accustomed to the generic Tesa produced by the German firm Beiersdorf. Another example is Tempo in Germany generic for any Papiertaschentuch (paper handkerchief) which the Americans call Kleenex.

The German firm Kärcher produces high-pressure cleaners using hot or cold water. Due to their high quality Kärcher products are successfully exported to many countries. In the UK the umlaut (Tüttel) on the a is simply left out as in the case of an earlier export: Georg Friedrich Händel became George Frideric Handel.

In France they write Karcher without umlaut, too, the syllabic stress moving to the last syllable. The French even went so far as to form a new verb karcher (premier group de conjugaison). Instead of saying "cleaning something with a high-pressure water jet", they karcher the object. The Kärcher company was delighted.

In 2005 during the time of a youth rebellion in France the verb karcher became highly political. The then Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy heated up the political climate by insulting the young Maghreb demonstrators as racaille (scum) and declared qu'il fallait «nettoyer» les banlieues au Karcher (one needs to "clean" the suburbs using a Karcher). Sarko proposed to karcher subjects instead of objects; so far so bad. From that moment on karcher became a synonym for cleaning the suburbs.

Where is the Karcher? (seen on Facebook)
Last month and with regard to upcoming elections in France Kärcher sent a letter to all political parties and presidential candidates asking them not to use karcher in their campaign in the meaning karcher les banlieues. The answer Kärcher may expect is the same they already received when they sent a similar letter in 2010: We do not understand the excitement. Using the verb karcher is free publicity and means that your products are efficient and of good quality. Kärcher would rather do without such a publicity.

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