It’s the Cadillac of crossovers,” said the ads from Cadillac as it introduced its SRX vehicle for 2010.
No longer is Cadillac merely a century-old brand name. Over time, it’s also become a rhetorical device. Consider these other “Cadillacs”:
“The Cadillac of cologne” (“with aromas of ebony, cloves and incense, introducing a feeling of unlimited freedom,” produced under license from General Motors, by Beauty Contact, a company based in Dubai).
“The Cadillac of all trim saws”
“The Cadillac of the sand-pile set” (Huffy children’s bicycle).
“The Cadillac of phonographs”
“The Cadillac of dog foods”
(Cadillac brand dog food).
“The Cadillac of minivans” (how a rental-car attendant described the Oldsmobile Silhouette to John Travolta’s character in the movie Get Shorty).
“Cadillac health care plans”
(heard numerous times on Capitol Hill to describe high-end insurance policies).
Blame it all on the copywriter for a 1959 advertisement for the luxury auto brand. He described Cadillac as “the world’s best synonym for quality.”
(A language purist named Ben Zimmer, a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary, points out that line should say Cadillac is really a metonym for quality – “but that wouldn’t fly in ad copy.”)
What in the name of language and luxury is going on here? Don’t think of it as trademark dilution. It’s more like semantic evolution. We’ve come a million miles from the creation of the Cadillac automobile brand -- named after the 17th-century French explorer Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac.
Fraser Sutherland is the Canadian linguist and dictionary editor who is my co-author on The Making of a Name (Oxford University Press). He points out that such a rhetorical device appears fairly often to signify the cream of the crop, la crème de la crème. For example:
The old Canada Dry slogan,
“The champagne of ginger ales.”
Miller had something almost identical: “The champagne of bottled beers.”
And across the pond from America, of course, a similar figure of speech emerged with Rolls-Royce. As early as 1969, a book titled Aircraft in War and Peace depicted “the best pleasure
aeroplane, the Rolls-Royce of the air.”
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