"product" as non-manufactured

James E. Clapp jeclapp at WANS.NET
Tue Feb 8 11:15:14 UTC 2000

Roly Sussex asked:
> Does anyone have a date, place or other source for when "product"
> grew out of its "manufactured physical object" meaning and started
> to be used for financial plans, share portfolio strategies,
> mortgages, health plans and so on? It sounds like management/
> sales-speak.

Fred Shapiro answered:
> I don't think your premise, that "manufactured physical object" is the
> original meaning of "product," is correct.  The original meaning referred
> to the result of arithmetical multiplication, and other non-manufacturing
> meanings go back to at least as early as the 17th century.

It must be unusual for a term to originate in mathematics and branch out
like this one, and it is interesting to see how recent the use of "product"
in the commercial sense of "the fruits of one's labor offered for sale"
appears to be (nineteenth century?).

But of course Roly's premise wasn't that the commercial sense was the
earliest sense of the word, but merely that the recently fashionable use of
the word in business circles to refer to a service offered (especially a
financial service) is an outgrowth of the original commercial sense of "a
thing produced (by manufacture or farm labor) and offered for sale."  And
surely that is correct.

Benjamin Barrett answered:
> Although I agree it sounds like business-speak, I would think this comes
> from law not sales. Black's includes a reference but it isn't dated.

That would really surprise me.  When I was practicing law in the
mid-eighties I encountered the term (in the sense Roly is asking about)
only in corporate business plans and the like:  "We will grow domestic
revenues by rolling out a new reverse debenture product and grow the
foreign subsidiary through strategic targeting of the Cayman Islands option
straddle product."

No doubt lawyers by now have caught this usage from their clients and
describe their legal services as "products," but certainly the traditional
usage in law was the same as elsewhere.  "Products liability," for
example, refers to the liability of manufacturers and sellers of unsafe
products like soft drinks with broken glass and automobiles with gas tanks
that explode.

Similarly, in U.S. trademark law "products" is identified with "goods" as
distinguished from "services."  Title 15 of the United States Code, section
1127, defines "trademark" as a word or other device "used by a person...to
identify and distinguish his or her goods, including a unique *product*,
from those manufactured or sold by others"--as distinguished from "service
mark," defined as a device used "to identify and distinguish the services
of one person, including a unique *service*, from the services of others."
For example, "Citibank" is a registered service mark for financial

And until 1988, "certification mark" was defined as "a mark used upon or in
connection with...*products or services*...to certify regional or other
origin, material, mode of manufacture, quality, accuracy or other
characteristics of *such goods or services* or that the work or labor on
the *goods or services* was performed by members of a union or other
organization."  (In the course of some 1988 revisions the word "goods" was
substituted for "products" in that definition.)

My guess is that trademark laws originally applied only to products (i.e.
goods), and that the law was later extended to extend protection to marks
associated with services, which were therefore called "service marks."  In
any case, the distinction between "product" (physical item in commerce) and
"service" appears to be very firmly ingrained in law.

The latest Black's (7th ed.) is in accord, defining "product" as follows:

       Something that is distributed commercially for use
       or consumption and that is usu. (1) tangible personal
       property, (2) the result of fabrication or processing,
       and (3) an item that has passed through a chain of
       commercial distribution before ultimate use or consumption.

If a previous Black's said something else, Garner must have taken it out.

James E. Clapp

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