Trademarks that have entered English language

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column on language

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Top Stories

Shashi Tharoor: Meet the man of many masks
Shashi Tharoor: Meet the man of many masks

Published: Fri 7 Jul 2023, 6:54 PM

A recent column discussed how many words we routinely use that properly aren’t words, but trademarks that have entered the language. For linguists, the process of a trademarked term becoming a generic term, such as Xerox being used to mean ‘photocopy’, is known as anthimeria. For the marketing folks, it’s called genericisation, generification, or even genericide (the last uses the suffix for ‘murder’ — thus ‘fratricide’ is the killing of a brother, and genericide refers to the ‘killing’ of a trademark through its becoming generic). Google, Xerox, Hoover and B. F. Goodrich (who made zippers) have all fought genericide and either lost or are in the process of losing their struggles to protect their trademarks. (Google has a history of monitoring dictionaries ever since their name became a synonym for Internet searching, arguing that generic use erodes the value of their brand. But they can’t stop everyone who tells you to “google it”!)

American life seems to lend itself readily to genericisation. Aspirin, Band-Aid, ChapStick, cellophane, dumpster, escalator, granola, Jell-O, Jacuzzi, Kleenex, Laundromat, linoleum, pogo stick, Post-it, Q-tip, Rollerblade, Scotch Tape, tarmac, thermos, Tupperware, TV dinner, Vaseline, Velcro and yo-yo (in alphabetical order) all began life as trademarked brand names, but their copyright protection has long since collapsed in practice. This may perversely reflect the success of their marketing: they so entered public consciousness that people stopped thinking of any other term to represent the item or the function it performed. Let’s face it: go through the list and practically no one would be inclined to replace those terms with their proper equivalents, which, in order, should be: headache remedy, sticking plaster, lip balm, transparent wrapping material, rubbish container, moving staircase, healthy breakfast cereal, edible jelly candy, whirlpool bath, facial tissue, wall-mounted automatic washing machine, synthetic floor covering, jumping toy pole with spring, sticky notes, cotton-tipped swab, in-line skates, clear adhesive tape, asphalt road surface, vacuum flask, plastic storage containers, frozen pre-prepared meal, petroleum jelly ointment and a disc-shaped toy that moves up and down! So much easier to use the brand name as shorthand, isn’t it?

But what surprised even me is the discovery of a number of commonly-used words that I didn’t even know had ever been trademarks, and which I therefore omitted from my original column. “Dry ice”, for instance, was trademarked in 1925 by the DryIce Corporation, but the term “dry ice” is now simply understood to mean solid CO2. It lost its trademark in 1932. “Heroin” is an even bigger surprise. The drug, derived from morphine, was named “heroin”, trademarked by Bayer in 1898 based on the German word heroisch, meaning “heroic, strong”; but trademark protection was stripped from Bayer, a German company, during the First World War in 1917. Similarly, the first modern “trampoline” was built and trademarked in 1936, and comes from the Spanish for “diving board” — trampolin. But no one uses any other word for a jumping board on which kids bounce up and down. The most astonishing is “kerosene”: it was registered as a trademark in 1854 by Abraham Gesner, who described “kerosene” (derived from the Greek “kerns” for wax) as a combustible hydrocarbon liquid. Only two companies were allowed to use the trademarked term, until eventually, and inevitably, kerosene became a victim of genericide.

A number of words are still trademarked, but they are so commonly used that they have passed into the language already. When you hear people talking of their “Adrenalin” pumping in moments of excitement or fear, they’re using a trademark for epinephrine owned by Parke-Davis. Hockey and tennis fans are familiar with their sports being played on “AstroTurf”, an artificial ground-covering material trademarked by Monsanto. People mailing breakable items like to package them in “Bubble Wrap”, but if they call their inflated cushioning by that word, they are using the trademark of a company called SealedAir.

When we heard of President Nixon promoting “Ping Pong diplomacy” with China, we assumed that was merely the American expression for table-tennis, just as they say “soccer” for “football”, but it turns out to be a trademark owned by Parker Brothers. Even the generic name “superhero” turns out to have been trademarked by DC Comics and Marvel Comics. If you don’t believe me, google it!


More news from Lifestyle