Language Lounge

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:

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday January 1st 2007, 4:57 AM
Comment by: Jackie D.
Play Doh was sold in the UK from around the mid 1960s. I still remember the bright colours and distinctive smell of this wonderful product from my childhood.

One word which caused hilarity amongst UK teenagers was the US word for sellotape or sticky tape. In the UK Durex was the brand name for condoms!
Monday January 1st 2007, 5:22 AM
Comment by: Stan F.
Your magazine is wonderful. Focus, breadth and depth. An amazing combination.

Thanks so much! Keep it coming.

Monday January 1st 2007, 5:38 AM
Comment by: Dirk V.
What about a byro, tarmac etc.
Monday January 1st 2007, 7:11 AM
Comment by: Donald B.
Excellent piece!

Does the "Murphy Bed" we sleep comfortably in fit?
Monday January 1st 2007, 7:39 AM
Comment by: Jeanne B.
When I visited Baffin Island, Nunavut (Google it) I found that any snowmobile, whatever brand, was a SkiDoo and any four-wheeler was a Honda.
Monday January 1st 2007, 9:44 AM
Comment by: Norman A.
Most enlightening and fun!
Monday January 1st 2007, 9:47 AM
Comment by: Norman A.
Did I miss seeing cellophane?
Monday January 1st 2007, 9:57 AM
Comment by: larry A.
While it doesn't seem to be prevalent these days, Fridgidaire was generic for an electric refrigerator during most of my younger years.
Monday January 1st 2007, 10:05 AM
Comment by: Dave H.
good they say? but then we are skewing that word 2. I really wanted to throw in "looking in the frig" because I believe that at one point, when your trade mark became generic, it was very very good for business. As a former Hoover engineer, my excuse for any spelling errors included herein, I recall many discussions about this subject with an old and dear friend who was chief patent council for Hoover.
Monday January 1st 2007, 10:13 AM
Comment by: Shannon Forbes (Casper, WY)
Play Doh - First thing I learned was never to take it out of its egg and put it in your pocket. Big mistake. It never comes out. This was maybe fifty years ago, or whenevver it firstr came out. Missed the article, which probably told when. Gonna try & look it up.
Monday January 1st 2007, 10:22 AM
Comment by: David E.
And the winner for losing control of their name: Spam, which began as being Pork Shoulders and Ham.
Monday January 1st 2007, 12:38 PM
Comment by: Thomas W.
Your article raises a question in my mind: When does one capitalize a trademark turned generic? You said that you "Googled ... photoshopped." I do not find a consistency of usage in your article, nor an explanation of when and how, for example, "Jell-O" might become "jello." You use "Scotch tape," not "Scotch Tape" (which is 3M's registered trademark)"band aid" not "Band-Aid" (which, hyphenated, is on the Johnson & Johnson box, but "Kleenex" which is one of the grandparents of the trademark creep. "iPod" seems well on its way to becoming a generic term for "MP3 player," regardless of what Apple might want. For one thing, the former's two syllables are much easier to say than the latter's five. People look at me with glazed eyes when I tell them about my "Toshiba gigabeat" (trademark uncapitalized)and finally say, "Oh, you have an iPod." Will its cute camel-case typography remain when it becomes a verb? "Will you stop iPodding and listen to me?"

Do we, perhaps, do our "Googling" on Google, but "google" on Yahoo!? (And how does one gracefully preserve the trademark exclamation point at the end of that question? Or should one?)

Any further thoughts on "to cap or not to cap"?
Monday January 1st 2007, 2:53 PM
Comment by: Timothy O.
It's not a trivial or desirable thing for a trademark to become a noun describing something. Kimberly Clark wants us to mean THEIR product when we use the term "Kleenex" tissue, not just any generic tissue. That's why, I think, marketers do and should do protect their trademarks from "generification."

"Thermos" deliberately (though probably ignorantly) lost themselves that distinction. You can now, in the U.S. anyway, buy lots of vacuum bottles that are called "thermoses," even though there's still only one company bearing that name. Surely did hurt THAT brand.

Also, some years ago, I worked on some advertising for the manufacturer of brake pads and shoes, Ferodo. My understanding is that in certain third-world countries, where autos are rather new to the culture, there was no word for "brake." "Ferodo," I am told, was adopted.

Best regards!

Tim Orr
Monday January 1st 2007, 2:55 PM
Comment by: Lara P.
Isn't it the ultimate compliment when a trademark, i.e., a variant of an item or activity, becomes synonymous with the entire class? I expect by the time this happens, the trademarked object has produced sufficient income to keep quite a lot of people entertained, lawyers included.
Monday January 1st 2007, 5:28 PM
Comment by: Karen B.
In Canada we used the term 'Fridge' for a refrigerator from the old brand name Fridgidaire. I'm always amazed at the blank stares form when I used the word with Americans who live not 100 miles away. Funny how 'Fridge' never crossed the border.

Karen in Toronto
Monday January 1st 2007, 6:16 PM
Comment by: John B.
Owners of trademarks are probably more interested in doing "due diligence" to maintaining the sancity of their trademarks than they are in actually controlling the public conversion of a trademark into a class. How is Coca-Cola hurt by having someone order a "coke"? How is Kleenex hurt by having someone seek a nose wiper under this categorical appellation? They probably have no real desire to control to the public's generalization of a class from a specific product. However, they DO have a strong interest in avoiding loss of the trademark through passively allowing this shift without voicing umbrage. So, they probably are happy with what we do, even if they can't say so.
Tuesday January 2nd 2007, 3:28 AM
Comment by: Tor A.
In the US my friends used "sticky-tac" to describe that blue stuff that stuck items to the wall. Quite commonly used, I think.
Tuesday January 2nd 2007, 10:07 AM
Comment by: James A.
for Karen B: I grew up in and around New York and lived in southern Cal for ten years or so, and have always heard the refrigerator refered to as "the fridge". "refrigerator" is too much a mouthful for a word one might use or hear everyday of their snacking lives. I can't believe that if you asked those yanks "What's in the fridge?", they wouldn't know what you were asking. I mean, of course I believe you, but... maybe it was the "ey" you added at the end. just kidding.
Tuesday January 2nd 2007, 4:48 PM
Comment by: Luis A.
We DO use the term "hoover" in America, but it's been extended more as a slang term used for eating a lot, as in "We were so hungry by the time the food arrived that we hoovered it all in about ten seconds."
Tuesday January 2nd 2007, 6:48 PM
Comment by: Linda H.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I had an English teacher who was trying to teach this concept. The only problem was that he was from India, so his examples fell completely short of teaching the concept, and he faced a lot of blank stares from the class. For instance, he tried to tell us that all cars were called Chevys, and all soft drinks Cokes (well that one is true in the south, but not in Boulder, Colorado in the 1960s). When I tried confronting him on it, he wouldn't budge (I guess he couldn't admit he was wrong). But the other students felt he was completely wrong, not just in his examples. I finally had to just let it go. But as you can see, it made a lasting impression on me.
Tuesday January 2nd 2007, 10:47 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Shannon - I think you're confusing Play Doh with Silly Putty. Silly Putty was the stuff that came in an egg. And I know from bitter experience how difficult it is to get out of fabric! My son managed to get it stuck to his bedroom curtains. (Years later, the big bright blue stain is still there.) I also recall teaching a class when a young girl got Silly Putty stuck in her hair! (After much angst, we ended up using peanut butter to get it out. Messy but it worked!)

Another brand name that people often use as a generic is Plexiglas. That one sticks with me because when I was a newspaper editor, I frequently had to capitalize it when reporters left it in lower case.

Great article, Orin.
Wednesday January 3rd 2007, 10:57 AM
Comment by: Lee J.
As a brand consultant I found your article fascinating. While lawyers burn the midnight oil and rack up billable hours defending trademarks (as they should be defended) common "street usage" has its own trajectory with what happens to those product names. It seems particularly related to new products or at least the new products that take hold in the market.

One of the interesting things that comes up in the comments from readers is the difference in how product are called across the globe. The Biro in Europe (named after it's inventor the Hungarian Lazlo Biro 1899-1985) is called Bic in other parts of the world after the manufacturer Michel Bich who developed a process for making the pens for a dramatically lower price.

And let us not forget the verbing of "Xerox" and "FedEx" to mean copy electrostatically and send by courier.

Keep up the good work.

Lee in Toronto

Wednesday January 3rd 2007, 12:25 PM
Comment by: Marla S.
My favorite cross-border head-scratcher is when my friends from British Columbia refer to my garbage disposal as a garberator (I'm unclear on the correct spelling). Apparently they think it's quite funny -- and uncharacteristically formal -- when we Americans use the two-word, generic descriptor.

I had never even heard of the Garberator brand, and it had never occurred to them that there was another!
Wednesday January 3rd 2007, 1:12 PM
Comment by: L B.
Great tutelage, and sweetly refreshing comments. It is beautiful to taste the public brain.

Wednesday January 3rd 2007, 3:45 PM
Comment by: Deborah G.
Great stuff! Reminds me of residents from various parts of U.S. using their own vernacular to describe the same items (e.g., hoagie, sub, submarine, grinder, hero, etc). Hailing from New England, I have had many laughs and gaffes while trying to interpret what food servers mean by "a bowl of red", a "sack", or a "field donut". The last one made us both chuckle after I realized the girl was saying "filled donut" and not describing a cow plop!
Thursday February 1st 2007, 12:51 PM
Comment by: George T.
Interesting article. "Funny" thing is, substituting a brand name tends to have a comedic effect on the statement (try it).

Trademark owners benefit from ubiquitous usage of their brand names; what they fear is the corruption of them. Actually, they tend to fear anything they can't control, but that's another topic.

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