Back in March 2009 I wrote about the shifting meaning of “urban,” from the standard dictionary definition (“of the city”) to something tinged with politics and sociology. The emerging meaning of “urban,” I wrote, often translates to “dominated by a racial minority.” (@UrbanEnglish, for example, is the Twitter handle for something that calls itself Ghetto Translations™.) Although I mentioned a few brands with “urban” in their names—Urban Dictionary, Urban Outfitters, National Urban League—I focused on lower-case “urban,” puzzling over phrases such as “Oakland, like most urban cities…”
Since then I’ve continued to track the spread of “urban.” I’m still seeing redundant-seeming usages like this one, from Maggie Koerth-Baker’s 2012 book Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us: “Merriam isn’t a small town. … Yet Merriam isn't a suburb, either—or an urban city.” (Emphasis added.) But what’s really gotten my attention is an explosion of upper-case “urban” in brand names.
Granted, all of these brands originated in cities and cater to city dwellers. But that alone doesn’t explain the popularity of “urban” in their names. Rather, I suspect it’s a meme—a viral phenomenon. “Urban” here is shorthand for “cool” and “savvy”; with few exceptions, there are no racial overtones.
I should know better by now, but I’m always surprised when I see so many copycat names, especially in a concentrated geographical area. It’s as though each of these business owners felt compelled to tap out the same code, fearful that even a slight deviation (“urbane,” say, or just “urb”) would break the spell.
Here’s a far-from-complete rundown of the urban names I’ve noticed.