Wednesday, February 04, 2009

When the Acme Is No Longer the Highest Point

Oh, the Acme Corporation. How much delight it has given the world, whether through sheer creativity of its products — portable holes! — or the bloody havoc that these wares wreaked upon one Wile E. Coyote.

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acme retrospective compiled by and courtesy of strangeharvest.com

I grew up on Looney Tunes, but it wasn’t until high school that I found out that the word acme actually means something outside of the universe that Bugs Bunny inhabits: “the highest point or stage” or “one that represents perfection of the thing expressed,” according to Webster. (Full disclosure: I learned about it from a video game had no reason to tread into Looney Tunes territory and that offered one bit of text that was otherwise incomprehensible — “The acme is rising.”) Since finding out that it was an actual word, I always thought it was strange that all those Chuck Jones battles between the coyote and the roadrunner had prompted me to mentally assign acme to the role of being a synonym for generic — that is, assuredly not the best of its type. After all, those products never seemed to work out in Wile E. Coyote’s favor, and I can only credit so much to his bad luck. In fact, though I’m struggling to recall a specific instance, I could swear that I’ve heard other people use acme to mean “generic” when referring to things purchased and be perfectly understood by whomever they were talking to. (Am I crazy? Is this unheard of? If someone told you “The store was out of the nice toilet paper, so I just brought the Acme-brand stuff,” would you understand what he or she was saying?)

Let’s say I’m right and people do, in fact, think of acme as meaning essentially the opposite of what the dictionary says its definition should be. Could it be possible that Wile E. and the countless malfunctioning Acme Corporation-produced props have played a role in the word turning from a positive into a negative?

I would have said yes, but upon reading the Wikipedia page for the Acme Corporation, I think the answer depends more on the age of the person being asked.

According to Wikipedia, when telephone directories such as the Yellow Pages began to become popular, businesses would take names that put them at the top of the alphabetical listings in order to get themselves more attention, hence establishments like AAA Pest Control — whose services are a low B-grade, tops — or Aaronson Bros. Pizza — whose proprietors aren’t brothers and have the last names Zwykowski and Zednanreh, respectively. The word acme became especially popular as a business name because its spelling put it toward the beginning of the alphabet and its meaning implied a high-quality product or service. If this trend was well-known enough to merit parody in a cartoon, then it seems reasonable that it might have been a thing that the cartoon-abstaining chunk of the populace would have been familiar with it too, which, by extension, could mean that people in general had revised or at least added onto acme’s definition long before Wile E. ever rocket-skated into a cliff face.

My point is this: Regardless of whether acme means anything other than exactly what the dictionaries say it should, I’d wager that a lot of people recognize the “flipside” definition, whether as a result of a bad Yellow Pages experience with an Acme business whose service or products was decidedly not top-notch or as a result of Wile E. Coyote cartoons.

Of interest, given the subject at hand: the Acme Product Catalogue.

3 comments:

  1. There's a grocery store called Acme in my area, so that's where I first heard the name.

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  2. I saw that in looking at businesses that still have the name, of which there are many. Is the Acme grocery store indeed the best?

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  3. Well, it's one of the more expensive ones in the area, if you take that as an indication of quality.

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