add to the Rolodex

victor steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Thu May 5 15:18:02 UTC 2011

David Bernstein (of the Volokh Conspiracy) complains about what he perceives
to obsolete usage in received communication:

I received a promotional postcard from X Law School, bragging about one of
> its professors. The text of the card starts, β€œIt would be wise to add
> [Professor ___] to your Rolodex. Because nobody knows more about training a
> new generation of lawyers than she does.”
> Rolodex?
> I half expected the postcard to conclude with the tag line, β€œX Law School:
> Preparing Our Students for the Twentieth Century.”

I don't think that's quite right. There are two assumptions that Bernstein
makes here that are questionable--1) "Rolodex" is a vibrantly viable
trademark (as opposed to one that was headed for genericide long before the
product it identified became nearly obsolete) and 2) the expression is to be
taken literally.

"Add to the Rolodex" is not a trivial expression. Rolodex was a patented--as
well as trademarked--invention that created a rotary contact file that
spawned a whole industry of "adding to Rolodex". Some Rolodex files came
specifically in the size matching standard business cards and there was a
corresponding hole-punch that allowed adding actual business cards to the
Rolodex. Other Rolodex products were larger, but still spawned products that
would allow an addition of business cards directly to the file (e.g., a
large card with a business-card-size transparent pocket). Then similar
linear files were created and sold under the Rolodex name, when, following
the patent expiration, "rotary file" imitators entered the market. And they
are not all dead either.

Rolodex is still in business trying to sell the same products for which
they've been known for nearly 40 years:

They have expanded their product line, but, perhaps, not as far as one might
have expected.

There have been Rolodex-branded computer-based and stand-alone contact
management "solutions", but most failed to take off.

Still, I believe, overall, Rolodex "has become somewhat genericized" (Wiki
language) and the phrase "add to the Rolodex" is nearly idiomatic.
Complaints about its twentieth century origin seem to be more complaints
about etymology than about usage.


The American Dialect Society -

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