Kevin Riordan posts at M/m about the history of that signal of modernity, the Kodak camera, with many glorious illustrations, mostly ads. The post begins:

In 1888, the George Eastman Company put the first film-roll camera on the market. The new “Kodak” put photographic practice into the hands of many amateurs and hobbyists for the first time. This camera had immediate cultural effect, shaping how people saw and recorded things—even when they didn’t have a Kodak with them. In 1890, for example, the American journalist Nellie Bly had few regrets about her record-breaking trip around the world, except that in her “hasty departure [she] forgot to take a Kodak.” Five years later, when H. G. Wells’s Time Traveller reached an astonishing future, he echoed the sentiment: “If only I had thought of a Kodak!” Despite advertising campaigns urging travelers to not forget their cameras, many didn’t learn the lesson. In Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out (1915), St. John Hirst reproaches himself in South America: “What an ass I was not to bring my Kodak!” Portable cameras and personal photography became ubiquitous, but everyone kept forgetting their Kodaks (figs. 1–2).

Fig. 2, a 1923 Parisian example, has N’oubliez pas votre “Kodak.” The whole story is worth reading, and of course don’t miss the ads, but I’m posting it mainly for the linguistic bits:

Eastman squabbled with other pioneers over terminology. When a competitor sought to patent the “combination” camera, Eastman protested that, if one could trademark “combination,” one may as well “prevent your fellow citizens from using the English language.” He realized that words, like cameras, do things, and a new photographic world required a new vocabulary. So in the 1888 patent Eastman coined “Kodak,” a peculiar word, the ks affording near-palindromic symmetry (fig. 6). Eastman believed Kodak could be easily pronounced across languages, and he particularly liked its consonants, which he called “strong and incisive . . . firm and unyielding” (cited in Brayer, George Eastman, 63). Kodak soon became not just a product name but a portable idea, an imagined accessory, and a perceptual prosthesis. In the marketing and in colloquial parlance, the name became an adjective (the “Kodak girl”), a verb (“Let the children Kodak”), and a component for other nouns (“Kodakery”) (figs. 7–8).

I just recently read the Russian equivalent in Dombrovsky’s Факультет ненужных вещей (post): “А скоро у него появился ещё фотоаппарат «кодак» и пистолет «монтекристо»” [Soon he also displayed his Kodak camera and Montecristo pistol]; the first example in the corpus is from 1901 (earlier hits are for Kodak Fortress): “В магазине фотографических принадлежностей фирмы Кодак некий Девисон похитил несколько тысяч фотографических карточек и скрылся” [A certain Davison stole several thousand photographic cards from the Kodak camera store and disappeared]. (Hat tip to Jonathan Morse for the link.)


  1. I imagine that Eastman must have been influenced by Kodiak, at least unconsciously.

  2. Such insistence on the muscular manliness of the phonology of “Kodak”. I have new thoughts about the other slide film, “Velvia”.

  3. Those ads might have been an inspiration for Nina Hagen’s first smash hit “Du hast den Farbfilm vergessen” (GDR 1974). Another pop music link is the Florida rapper who chose the stage name Kodak Black “…’cause you know Kodak, that’s pictures and all that.”

  4. When I read The Time Machine in high school, when the story was about 65 years old, I was surprised to encounter the word “Kodak” in something so, well gosh, 19th-century.

  5. Anthropomorphizing phonetic structures is usually cringe content for me, but /k/ and /d/ actually have a property plausibly analogous to “firm and unyielding”. They are fairly resilient to their surrounding vowels, and fairly unobtrusive to them, so much so that in phonetics lessons it is common to learn vowels and their properties by placing them in between these two friends (another popular neighbor is /h/).

  6. “An unassuming, yet supercilious, plosive”.
    “An assertive, well-meaning affricate, yet with a disappointing voicing note.”

    P.S. It turns out there’s quite a body of academic literature on the language of wine tasting notes.

  7. Speaking (as another thread has been, Y) of Roald Dahl, consider his New Yorker story “Taste.”

  8. David Marjanović says

    fairly resilient to their surrounding vowels

    Up to a point, e.g. not in Russian or Irish.

  9. January First-of-May says

    e.g. not in Russian

    …and at some previous stage of Russian (possibly multiple times), the resulting */kʲ/ turned into something else (forgot what), which meant that conditions for /kʲ/ were so rare (and/or so easily dismissable as allophonic) in modern Russian that some analyses did not even count it as a phoneme.

    (IIRC the corresponding conditions for its voiced counterpart /gʲ/ were even rarer.)

  10. @Yuval: I remember a film strip my class saw in fifth of sixth grade, which discussed how character names could be made evocative. I hadn’t though about it before, but I thought it made a good point that by giving a character a name with more flowing sounds, a writer could make a character seem slimy or oleaginous. Inversely, by naming a character Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens had already taken a powerful step toward making the man seem coarse and caustic.

  11. /k/ and /d/ actually have a property plausibly analogous to “firm and unyielding”.

    Говорили однажды о звукоподражательности, о собрании некоторых слов на разных языках, так что и не знающему языка можно угадать приблизительно, по слуху, к какой категории то или другое слово должно принадлежать. В Москве приезжий итальянец принимал участие в этом разговоре. Для пробы спросили его: «Что, по-вашему, должны выражать слова: любовь, дружба, друг?» — «Вероятно, что-нибудь жесткое, суровое, может быть и бранное», — отвечал он. «А слово телятина?» — «О, нет сомнения, это слово ласковое, нежное, обращаемое к женщине».


  12. Heh.

  13. I can hardly believe that George Eastman would have made the mistake of conflating patents with trademarks. So presumably it was Kevin Riordan?

  14. /Eastman believed Kodak could be easily pronounced across languages,/
    I was manning a Russian stand at an exhibition in London once, and an Englishman couldn’t understand me saying ‘COD-ek’ until he realised what it was and exclaimed ‘Oh, you mean ‘KOH-duck!’ (We had a Kodak projection machine).
    Remember how the makers of JIF exploited the struggles people were having in pronouncing the name of the brand when they rebranded it to CIF?

  15. David Marjanović says

    It is pronounced GIF!

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