A Monthly Column for Word Lovers
What Do You Do When You're Branded?
The other day, while we were hoovering in the Lounge, the vacuum cleaner seized up. On examination of its internal workings we found a number of items that had been sucked up inadvertently: a Kleenex, a Biro, a piece of Scotch tape, and a wad of Blu-tack. It struck us as quite marvelous that all these objects of everyday use are known to us mainly -- or in some cases, entirely -- by their trademark names.
We're au fait in the Lounge with familiar trademarks in the US and the UK, but we expect that these proprietary designations flourish wherever English is spoken, and indeed, in all modern languages. We've heard, for example, that Australians only curl up with a Doona (a kind of quilt) on cold winter nights, and retrieve their cold beverages from an Esky (a portable cooler), regardless of who the actual manufacturers of the items in question are. Trademark creep to designate a product generally -- though much feared and loathed by the trademark owners -- is a predictable outcome of living in a world where mass consumerism and saturation marketing is the rule rather than the exception. This is coupled, of course, with what we might call linguistic Darwinism: the survival, propagation, and diversification of the best word for something, based on a consensus of speakers.
Until recently, the prevailing pattern has been that trademarks, rather like vampires, cannot cross the water under their own power. Americans probably know about Plasticine only through the "Plasticine porters with looking-glass ties" that make an appearance in a Beatles lyric. Brits, by the same token, can be excused for not having heard of American Play-Doh, a similar substance known by trademark. hoover is an exception to the prevailing pattern: though the verb is not much used in US English, it is the standard term for vacuum in the UK, thanks to the success of the (originally American) company that manufactures home vacuum cleaners. Some of the other trademarks we mentioned above may be unfamiliar on one side of the Atlantic or the other: Scotch tape has a companion in Sellotape, also a trademark. Kleenex (American) and Biro (Brit) both have generic designations not much used in their countries of origin. Blu-tack is a marvelous gummy substance known to every Briton; it's sold in the US but under various names and most people don't have a word for it; one package we found calls it "reusable adhesive."
The entry for Blu-tack in the Oxford Dictionary of English identifies it as a trademark, has a noun sense that describes what it is, and then defines a verb sense: "attach something using Blu-tack" (e.g., "a notice Blu-tacked to the wall"). The editors of that estimable volume are only doing their job: describing the way that language is used. It's a natural thing for speakers and writers to put words they find useful into full service, morphing them into other parts of speech when the occasion requires it. Surely it is no different than bits of DNA finding their way into the genome of an organism and eventually becoming fully integrated, functional, and responsive. It seems a bit wrongheaded then that trademark owners refuse to acknowledge the inevitability of this very natural process. They spend thousands developing a successful name, tens of thousands or even millions promulgating it, but then they want to slam on the brakes when they succeed: as if language were a vast game of "Mother May I?" and trademark owners could refuse to grant to speakers and writers the baby-step of using their words with full license.
Today, thanks to globalization and the Internet, trademarks are shorebound no more. The stakes are even higher for trademark owners, and the temptation to transgress even more irresistible by speakers of all languages the world over. When was the last time you said "I searched the Internet for it using a search engine?" We don't recall ever hearing such a sentence in the Lounge, but everyday we hear of people Googling things, and we Google ourselves with complete abandon. Why? It's a natural. English has dozens of regular verbs that end in -gle (bungle, burgle, entangle, gargle, giggle, inveigle, mangle, etc.), but only one that ends in -hoo (ballyhoo), which goes a long way toward explaining why we Google, but we don't Yahoo. In Germany, on the other hand, they googeln, against the best wishes of the trademark owners (see link below).
Along similar lines: for many years, retouch was the verb of choice to suggest or indicate that a photo had been given a more desirable appearance. Then the airbrush came along and was quickly pressed into service as a verb to indicate the same thing. Digital technology, however, has now left the airbrush behind in a cloud of pixels and a new verb has emerged to denote today's extreme makeover of images. The candidate most likely to prevail: Photoshop. The versatility of the software package, and the fact that word's sound pattern is comfortable for verbs in English (we have several dozen regular verbs ending with the syllable -op), meant that it was only a matter of time before folks started photoshopping images, and now the verb is unstoppable. Stats that we Googled recently: about 100 hits on the form "photoshopped" in Google News. The blogosphere (again, we Googled it) has 35K+ hits on "photoshopped." (Of course, if you Botox your subject adequately to start with, you won't have to photoshop so severely.)
Just as English is littered with lapsed trademarks (aspirin, escalator, linoleum, thermos), dictionary publishers' files are littered with letters from manufacturers' legal departments threatening dire actions if their trademarks appear in dictionaries, or if the publishers fail to define the trademark exactly and very limitingly as the manufacturers wish. Publishers, for their part, have an obligation to the public to record language the way that people actually use it. More often than not, they print a formulaic disclaimer in the front of their books, and then do what they need to. Thus, nearly every modern dictionary notes the generic use of band aid as a quick fix, and tarmac as any paved surface, whether it is paved with genuine Tarmac or not. English learners would be entirely at a loss if dictionaries did not include definitions for such things as Formica, Jacuzzi, Jell-O, Popsicle, or Tylenol, because learners are not likely -- in the U.S., anyway -- to encounter them by any other name.
We may sleep comfortably in our beds, knowing that others -- in particular, corporate lawyers -- are burning the midnight oil about such matters. Here are a few snapshots of the relevant points:
German Dictionary publisher caves to pressure from Google (there is also some discussion here about the "pod" part of iPod, and Apple's attempts to hobble its legs):
Case study of the recent passing of a trademark to generic status, which exhibits many of the usual issues:
Here's a typical example of what English users, left to their own devices, can do with the verb photoshop:
Finally, if you want to go in at the deep end of fair use and trademarks, a really excellent article summarizing US law on the matter is at: