Brand (verb)

Before the 1500’s, “brand” appears in Middle English as “bronde” and “brend” (which mean ‘an illuminated torch’ or the verb ‘to burn’). It was not until the 16th century that the spelling changed to our current usage. Its distinction from to burn, or burning, seems to have occurred as a new spelling evolved. As a transitive verb, in the OED, its first definition means to burn with a hot iron, whether for the purpose of marking the flesh (as in the case of criminals or slaves), or of cauterizing as a surgical operation. This definition is interesting as it aligns a medical subject alongside the slave and criminal. This first definition clearly points to its technical use in distinguishing types of human bodies. Absent from the 16th century citations are any references to typographies of torture, or of lettering. The OED’s citation that does mention lettering and branding is from Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1850, specifying the letter H, the initial of a master. The material of hot iron appears to be more strongly collocated with this definition than the ideology of ownership–which surprises me since slaves are mentioned.

A century later, in the 1600’s, the OED charts a new definition of “brand” as a verb, meaning to mark indelibly, as a proof of ownership, as a sign of quality, or for any other purpose. Remarkably, it is at this time that “brand” comes to also mean to impress (a word, letter or device) by way of brand. It is also here that the marking of horses and cattle are introduced into the history of “branding.”
During this century the plays Shakespeare predominantly composed in quires became accessible in larger folios. In 1611 the King James bible was published, and the relatively new technology of the printing press allowed words, and intellectual property, to circulate through society with an ease previously unknown. I want to argue that the mark of the word, a letter impressed or imprinted on a page, comes into the usage of “branding” in the 1600’s, and it is from here that “branding” branches off into ownership specifically. And though “branding” had been used to mark slave bodies, its concurrent usage to define criminal and the medicalized individuals exposes a discursive variety in its usage before the printing press. Ownership, lead and typeface appear to have replaced hot irons.

The OED’s next definition relays “branding” closer to our usage of it in abstract, figurative and cognitive realms. Meaning to set a mental mark of ownership, or to impress indelibly one’s memory, this definition exposes how power begins to be wielded to control minds as well as bodies in the middle and late 19th century, when most of these citations come from.

The OED’s 2004 draft edition is the first charting of “branding” as part of marketing and business, tied to “brand loyalty” and “brand name.” As early as the turn of the 20th century, the OED has cited “branding” to mean the application of a trade mark or brand to (a product); to promote (a product or service) on the basis of a brand name or design. From bodies to minds, “branding” has an interesting relationship to the specification of property in terms that rely upon the ideology of the immortality of the word, especially fantasies of the word’s indelibility in print, and the permanency of any declaration of ownership.


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