Yesterday in the Language Lounge, we took a look at what happens when a trademark ends up lapsing into generic use. The term genericide came up as a description for this loss of a trademark's protected status. The word raised some eyebrows among our readers, as well it should.

Genericide is an odd term, because when the Latin suffix -cide ("killer, act of killing") gets attached to a root X, it usually refers in a straightforward fashion to the killing of X. Most commonly we have homicide, "the killing of a human being by another human being" (from the Latin root homo "man"), and suicide, "the act of killing yourself" (from Latin sui "oneself"). Likewise, Latin 101 students should readily identify fratricide as "the act of murdering your own brother" and regicide as "the act of killing a king." More recently, the -cide suffix has been applied to chemical concoctions that serve as killing agents: bactericide against bacteria, germicide against germs, pesticide against pests, and so forth. (See this word list for many more examples.)

Genericide breaks this established pattern, because the word doesn't refer to the killing of something generic. Quite the opposite: what's being metaphorically killed is the specific trademark, and the process of genericization is the killer. (At least, that's how it looks from the point of view of the beleaguered trademark holder.) To fit the usual -cide model, a more fitting label for this phenomenon would be trademarkicide or brandicide.

Such alternatives have not caught on, however. Instead it's genericide that has cropped up in trademark case law for the last few decades. It hasn't yet entered the major English dictionaries, but it has been noted in A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage by Bryan Garner (whose more general work, Modern American Usage, should be familiar to many Visual Thesaurus readers). Garner observes that not everyone is happy with the use of genericide in legal contexts. One judge griped in a court ruling that the word is really a malapropism. "It refers to the death of the trademark, not to the death of the generic name for the product," the judge wrote, before ruefully concluding that the word is "firmly ensconced in the literature."

So who's responsible for this terminological oddity? My word-sleuthing assigns the credit/blame to Dorothy Fey, who was the longtime executive director of the United States Trademark Association. As early as 1955 Fey was sounding the alarm about the dangers of genericization. A couple of decades later, in late 1972, Fey introduced the suitably ominous word genericide to the readers of Business Week:

Most trademark litigation is an attempt to keep competitors from whittling away at a market protected by a successful brand. But the biggest single worry of trademark owners is losing a trademark entirely and having the court declare that the name has become generic and thus no longer anyone's exclusive property. The legal precedent that haunts them is a 1936 decision against Du Pont, in which its "Cellophane" trademark was ruled to have become generic, because Du Pont did not try hard enough — or successfully enough — to protect the name. Dorothy Fey calls such a loss "genericide."

Fey had limited success in popularizing genericide in the '70s (it appeared, for instance, in Israel Shenker's 1974 book Words and their Masters, and a 1977 article in American Heritage Magazine, both times explicitly crediting Fey). But in the '80s, Fey's word started getting noticed by judges, lawyers, and scholars weighing in on trademark disputes. In 1983, Legal Times carried an article entitled "Court Rules that 'Monopoly' Has Suffered Genericide" — bad news for Parker Brothers, the makers of the board game Monopoly, since the ruling opened the door to any number of Monopoly knockoffs. (It took a later act of Congress to allow Parker Brothers to re-register their trademark.) Since then, the term has found increasing acceptance in case law, though its meaning is not strictly defined.

To give Ms. Fey the benefit of the doubt, there have been other recent coinages of the pattern X-icide that mean something closer to "killing by means of X" rather than "the killing of X." For instance, there's autocide meaning "suicide by crashing the vehicle one is driving," copicide meaning "suicide by provoking a police officer to shoot" (more commonly known as suicide by cop), and medicide meaning "suicide assisted by a physician." And when the would-be "shoe bomber" Richard Reid made headlines in 2001, some called him a shoeicide bomber. Note, however, that all of these neologisms have to do with the act of suicide, performed in one fashion or another. I don't think Fey and others users of the term genericide are suggesting that imperiled trademarks are somehow committing suicide, jumping into the generic abyss.

Perhaps it's better to move away from the whole murderous metaphor, since the gradual creep of genericization is hardly equivalent to an intentional act of killing. Some scholars have suggested a term from Greek rhetoric, antonomasia, meaning "the use of a proper name to designate a member of a class." That euphonious word has been in English since the mid-16th century. Another rhetorical term is synecdoche, which covers the use of a specific name in the place of a general one (like calling any tissue a Kleenex). But as we saw in Word Routes not long ago, synecdoche remains a bit of a tongue-twister for many, even after appearing in the movie title, "Synecdoche, New York." Since these terms are unlikely to succeed in the legal world or the broader public, it looks like there's no killing genericide.


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday April 2nd 2009, 11:30 AM
Comment by: Jeffery F.
Ahem, "antinomsia"?
Thursday April 2nd 2009, 11:34 AM
Comment by: Jeffery F.
Oops, "antinomasia."
Thursday April 2nd 2009, 11:37 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Jeffery: Yes, antonomasia is the standard spelling, though the variant antinomasia also appears in the literature occasionally. We'll get that fixed.
Thursday April 2nd 2009, 5:30 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Interesting and informative discussion (as usual!).
Thursday April 2nd 2009, 8:37 PM
Comment by: Thomas P. (Shrewsbury, MA)
Synechdoche also includes, and is perhaps more often encountered, in the substitution of a word designating a part of a thing for its entirety, as in sail for fleet of ships, or horse for a cavalry formation.
Friday April 3rd 2009, 9:46 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
There are probably historical parallels for the turning of a particular root word to a slightly different meaning. If the context makes it clear and if it rolls off the tongue easily, it will persist.

Just so it's never confused with the killing of the elderly!

We will change our language. The Anti or Anto word seems rather ungainly. The generic based one seems awkward. In
Friday April 3rd 2009, 9:49 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
(A delivery came and I pressed 'enter', of course!)

...

Ingenuity should lead us to a word that means what is desired, but is more pleasant to hear. Or is this too unpleasant a concept for a pleasant word?
Saturday April 4th 2009, 5:32 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
Antonomasia?? Other than that, this was an interesting and informative discussion.

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Grand Theft Motto
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The Language Lounge looks at how trademark holders try to hold on to bits of the language.
Charlie Kaufman's film "Synecdoche, New York" left many moviegoers tongue-tied.