Caterpillar

the figurative name

Caterpillar was registered as a trademark and brand name in 1910 by Benjamin Holt of Stockton, California for his ‘crawler tractor’ designed to work in the soft, alluvial farmland of the San Joaquin Valley Delta. The steam powered tractors used hitherto had been too heavy and ineffective.

The similarities of this machine with the animal from which its name derives were seemingly more restricted than those of the metaphor-rich Jaguar car (see other Figurative name study). However, when you consider the picture of heavy 1000lb steam tractors sinking into the rich alluvial soil and contrast this with the sight of a vehicle able to ride atop the soil, the image becomes a fuller one. The caterpillar-like multi-tread appearance (caterpillars have 5+ pairs of legs on segmented bodies) can then be matched by the ‘crawler tractor’s’ apparent lightness of weight that belies its true mass.

The abbreviation of the brand name to CAT and its apparent, currrent interchangeability with Caterpillar is interesting. It implies a conceptual exclusivity from the source animal meanings that has arisen from pure brand meaning and brand use amongst the market. That no one has considered the mixed signals sent out by association with these two highly different types of animal is unlikely. More likely is it that a decision has been made on the basis that: a) either the brand meaning, as a contextual meaning, is so far removed from the context of animal environments as to be irrelevant or, b) more probable, that the adroitness of movement of the cat is similar enough to the caterpillar’s characteristic of lightness to make the other main difference,  multi-tread facility, less significant in its turn. This reducing of the leg power from between ten and twenty to the cat’s four also bears a very neat comparison with the shortening, or reducing, of the name from twelve letters to three.