18 terms that started as trademarks but are now used as words

Seeing your trademark becoming a commonly-used verb must be bliss for marketing people, but somewhat more worrying for their legal department

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By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 8 Jun 2023, 7:41 PM

One of the signs of our times is how many words we routinely use that properly aren’t words, but trademarks. A popular expression these days is to say “someone has drunk the Kool-Aid”, meaning he has swallowed propaganda and is regurgitating an official line. But of course Kool-Aid is a commercial product, aiming to be a refreshing drink and not a substitute bromide for unpalatable views. When you describe someone as having drunk the Kool-Aid, you're actually running afoul of copyright law. And yet not being aware of the expression is worse, since it is used so often, accompanied by a knowing smirk.

Other such terms abound. If you cut your finger and ask for a Band-Aid, you’re actually mentioning a specific company’s trademark; strictly speaking, what you want is an “adhesive bandage” or “adhesive plaster”. There was a time when people would go to “Xerox” something when they wanted to photocopy it. And today, of course, one is constantly Googling something when one is looking it up. (The process of using a word like this is known as anthimeria.)

Seeing your trademark becoming a commonly-used verb must be bliss for marketing people, but somewhat more worrying for their legal department. After all, too much success can hurt a trademark: the pharmaceutical company Bayer AG marketed acetylsalicylic acid under the trade name Aspirin, but taking “aspirin” for a headache became such a common experience that courts ruled the name was now generic and could no longer be trademarked!

The same thing was in danger of happening to “Polaroids”. This was the trade name for a special kind of camera: once you took a picture on it, the snapshots emerged from the apparatus and revealed themselves in minutes, even as you watched the images develop in front of your eyes. No one called these “instant cameras”, the generic name; they were simply Polaroids. Trademark protection might well have collapsed — except that the emergence of digital photography made the Polaroid experience much less magical. No one takes Polaroids any more.

That fate could still befall “Rollerblade” — roller skates, which have a single row of wheels down the middle of the skating shoe instead of two rows of wheels on the left and right of the skate. Kids who go rollerblading would never say they’re wearing “in-line skates”, even if the wheels on their feet are made by another company. Rollerblade may soon find itself in the same position as aspirin — as a term so generically used that it can no longer enjoy trademark protection.

When you find yourself sniffing in public and in need of facial tissues, what do you ask for? If you’re in America, the chances are you’d ask for a Kleenex, since that was the brand name that pioneered the facial tissue revolution and put an end to people sneezing ostentatiously into their pocket handkerchiefs. Elsewhere, of course, there are so many competing brands of facial tissues that “Kleenex” doesn’t have quite the same resonance as it enjoys in its original market in the US. Also in America, people in need of lip balm during the cold winters are quite likely to request a ChapStick — a product to counter chapped lips that has been around in the US since the late 1800s. It specifically refers to a brand of lip balm that is sold in a tube and applied like lipstick.

And then there are the ubiquitous “Velcro” strips, the trademark of a company with that name which invented and patented hook and loop fasteners. The company made up the word “Velcro” from combining two French words: velour (velvet) and crochet (hook). But we use the word indiscriminately even when the product we are using might have been manufactured by another company. Zipper, windbreaker, Scotch tape, escalator, hula hoop, yo-yo and dumpster are other commonly used words that began life as trademarks, now long forgotten.

Many UAE hotels make it a point to include a Jacuzzi in their larger bathroom suites. But how many of us are aware that, too, is a trademarked name? The concept of a hot tub was developed by an Italian company founded and run by seven Italian brothers in Northern Italy — named, of course, Jacuzzi. You can Google it!


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