The commonification of Magic Shell

A comment from Bill Stewart this morning on my posting from yesterday, “The states of matter: coconut X”, with reference to the third of the  (temperature-sensitive) states of coconut X considered there: not the free-flowing oil nor the spreadable semi-solid fat / cream, but a firm solid:

You remind me that I can take advantage of this unwanted by you hardening to make our own Magic Shell. Not that we need the ice cream anyway, or even the decadent indulgence of Magic Shell, which we’ll impose upon our grandson.

What caught my eye was the treatment of Magic Shell, obviously a proper noun (and a brand name), as a common noun (and a generic name): you can make your own.

But then I had to face up to the hard truth that I was utterly ignorant of what (commercial) Magic Shell or (homemade) magic shell might be. From Bill’s context, some sort of killer dessert, with coconut X as an ingredient.

So, the first order of business was to learn about Magic Shell. Then some recipes for making your own stuff. Then some comments about the generification / genericization of brand names, and the commonification (my term) of proper nouns.

Magic Shell. From Wikipedia:

Magic Shell is a dessert product produced by Smucker’s in the US, originally created as Ice Magic by Cottees in Australia, and sold in the UK as Bird’s Ice Magic. It is a syrup that quickly hardens into a crispy shell when poured onto a cold surface, which is the origin of the product’s name. The syrup is primarily designed for use on ice cream. It comes in several flavors, including chocolate, caramel, chocolate fudge, cupcake, cherry, and smores in addition to two unique flavours — one with chocolate, caramel, and pecans, which the company calls “Turtle Delight”, and a flavor based upon the candy bars Twix, Hersheys, and Reeses. Cherry flavored magic shell has been discontinued, as per Smuckers own website.

… The “shell” effect in Magic Shell is due to the presence of coconut oil and sunflower oil, both of which contain high amounts of saturated fat, and sugar, which produces a chocolate mixture which is solid at higher temperatures than would otherwise be the case with normal ice cream topping.

Photos of bottles of the syrups are not of much interest; you want to see the stuff in action. For that, we can turn to the Live Well Bake Often site, “Homemade magic shell” by Danielle on 6/7/16 — with a description of the 2-ingredient recipe and a photo of the result:

The idea for this recipe comes from the Magic Shell you can buy at the store. If you haven’t tried it before, it’s basically like a chocolate topping for your ice cream that hardens up a little once it’s been on the ice cream for a few seconds. It creates a chocolate shell around the ice cream, but it still says soft enough to break apart and enjoy.

… only two ingredients:

— chocolate chips: I always use semi sweet chocolate chips in this recipe, but you can use milk chocolate or dark chocolate if you prefer one over the other.

— coconut oil: Needs to be measured out while it’s solid (at room temperature or chilled).

On ice cream, with some sprinkles

Another site has a recipe with 3 ingredients: maple syrup, cacao powder, coconut oil.

On the generification / genericization of brand names and commonification of proper nouns. (Both changes often, but far from invariably, accompanied by lower-casing of the brand name or proper noun. ) Many such changes have run to completion, with no appreciation on the part of users that the expressions were once brand names, and with invariable lower-casing.

Some examples, collected from various sources:

elevator, escalator, aspirin, zipper, loafer ‘moccasin-style shoe’, frisbee, cellophane, thermos, granola, ping-pong / ping pong

Magic Shell / magic shell is nowhere near this state. Instead, presumably since people have come to the stuff through the Smucker’s products, there seems to be a strong tendency for people to use the expression with initial caps, no matter what the referent; I might be an unusually scrupulous speller, with my inclination to lower-case references to the homemade confection.

But there’s another way to look at this: not as a choice between brand name and generic name, proper noun and common noun (viewing the relevant spoken expressions as ambiguous between two understandings, which are differentiated in spelling), but as an attempt to fashion an expression that is neutral with regard to these oppositions, that serves as brand name or common name, as proper noun or common noun, whichever is appropriate for the context at hand.

It’s not customary for linguists to think of such distinctions as neutralizable, but I’m suggesting that a lot of users of English do exactly that, making no commitment as to whether they’re talking about the Smucker’s product line or about /mæǰɪk šɛlz/ from other sources.

Easy to do in speech. In writing, you have to decide whether or not to use initial caps, and you’ll probably opt for caps, because Smucker’s is where you learned about the stuff, or because you think initial caps should be used for type names (the attitude that brings us the Lily, the Wolfhound, the Swallow, and the Tuna Casserole), or because you think initial caps should be used for Important Stuff. When in doubt, Capitalize.

One Response to “The commonification of Magic Shell”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    A clarification. Generification and commonification are not, at root, matters of spelling change (though they often present themselves orthographically); they have to do with how people use linguistic expressions. If you start using /klinɛks/ to refer to facial tissues in general, not just those with the trademarked name Kleenex, that’s generification and commonification. Just so if you use /mæǰɪk šɛl/ to refer to any dessert syrup that hardens on contact with ice cream, not just those with Smucker’s trademarked name Magic Shell — if you use that expression for the homemade stuff, or similar stuff made by other companies — that’s generification and commonification.

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