I recently told a friend that Henry of Pelham’s Baco Noir was one of Ontario’s hallmark wines.

In retrospect, that may or may not have been the best word to use. Tell me what you think of first when you hear or read hallmark.

Um-hmm. Speakin’ of which, Christmas is coming, with all those greeting cards, many (though not all) of which are made by Hallmark. And some days – especially non-vacation-day “holidays” such as Secretaries’ Day and so on (is there a Project Managers’ Day or an Administrators’ Day or an Editors’ Day?) – are referred to derisively as “Hallmark holidays” because they seem to exist just to sell five-dollar pieces of cardboard.

Ah, what hath Joyce Clyde Hall wrought? J.C. Hall (a guy; Joyce was not always a ladies-only name) was the businessman who, in the first two decades of the 1900s, decided that greeting cards were going to be a big thing and started making and marketing them. In 1928, already well established, his company was renamed Hallmark. And thus a word for an attestation of quality started on its roll down the commercial hill to being a synonym for something trite, saccharine, and commercial. I imagine people named McDonald (and those uncommon people named Disney) have some empathy with this.

What, after all, is a hallmark? Well, in London, there is a building called Goldsmiths’ Hall, the home of the Goldsmiths’ Company, which was created to regulate the trade of goldsmiths in England and, since 1300, has been responsible for testing the quality of gold and silver articles – and, since 1975, platinum, and, since 2010, palladium. (The architecture of the current Goldsmiths’ Hall, built in the 1800s, looks just vaguely Palladian, but for no good reason.) The mark that is put on gold, silver, platinum, and palladium to indicate that its quality has been officially tested is the mark of Goldsmiths’ Hall, which is to say, the Hall-mark – now rendered hallmark.

It’s a nice word, really it is. It has that echoing thrall of hall, which can be many things (Kids in the Hall, hall pass, study hall), including some rather positive ones (deck the halls; all those noble buildings called ___ Hall). And it has the mark, which is a similarly common word that can name a blemish or a seal of approval (bourbon drinkers will think of Maker’s Mark) – or a person, including the author of a gospel. Hallmark starts with a breath, then rolls into a dark liquid /l/, firms further into the pillowy nasal /m/, and passes through that retroflex liquid /r/ to a hard stop at the end /k/. In short, its sound is reminiscent of the sight of the logo of a movie production company emerging through clouds or blur to resplendence at the beginning of a film.

And hallmark has good uses. A little searching on Bartleby.com pulls up a couple of examples of common figurative use: “Turgenev became the idol of all that was eclectic, and admiration for Turgenev a hallmark of good taste” (Maurice Baring); “the desirability of the aigrette as the hallmark of wealth and fashion” (Edward Bok).

An indicator of quality. Of good taste, perhaps. A stand-out; emblematic. A distinguishing trait. Imagine giving someone a Christmas gift that you consider a hallmark of taste or fashion: the perfect brooch or tie, perhaps.

Now imagine saying that you are giving them a hallmark.


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