Are You Guilty of Genericide?

By Maeve Maddox

You won’t find it in Merriam-Webster (yet), but genericide has a legal meaning. The “death” specified as genericide is that of a trademark word that has become a common generic term.

Some words that started out as brand names and “died” into a state of generic terms are:

aspirin, bundt cake, cellophane, ditto, dry ice, escalator,
granola, heroin, kerosene, linoleum, LP, minibike, nylon,
pogostick, tarmac, thermos, touch-tone, trampoline, wedgie,
yo-yo, zipper

These words were “killed by nouning,” that is, they came to be used as the generic word for a type of object:

thermos – vacuum bottle
linoleum – a type of floor covering

To stay within the boundaries of trademark law, many style books carry warnings like this one:

NEVER use a trademark as a noun. Always use a trademark as an adjective modifying a noun.

As pointed out at Language Log such a restriction is unrealistic. The manufacturers themselves use their brand names as nouns in their advertising:

• I coulda had a V8!
• Have you driven a Ford lately?
• Don’t squeeze the Charmin.

Google and Xerox are struggling to preserve their names from “death by verbing.” They don’t want people saying or writing such things as

Go google a recipe for potato soup.
or
Have you finished xeroxing that report?

They prefer that we say or write
Go do a Google search for a potato soup recipe.
and
Have you used the Xerox machine to finish photo-copying that report?

Vacuum cleaner manufacturer Hoover lost a “verbing” fight in the U.K. People in the U.K. hoover their carpets. In the States, Hoover remains a protected brand name.

Google and Xerox are fighting a losing battle if they want people to stop using their brand names as verbs. The best they can hope for is that we capitalize the verbs:

I’m Googling Teddy Roosevelt.
I’m Xeroxing my term paper.

I don’t think it’s likely to happen. We can be trained to capitalize adjectives derived from proper nouns, but I don’t think capitalized verbs will catch on.

Ironically, the first recorded use of “google” as a verb has been traced to Google founder Larry Page. According to a Wikipedia article,

The first recorded usage of google used as a verb was on July 8, 1998, by Larry Page himself, who wrote on a mailing list: “Have fun and keep googling!”

Language ultimately belongs to the people who speak it. Some brand names are so successful at selling the product that they sell themselves into the bargain.

Not much can be done to restore the capitals to former brand names like shredded wheat and popsicle, but writers can cooperate when it comes to protected words that have not yet been “nouned” or “verbed” to death.

Next time you use one of the following words in your writing, be sure it’s capitalized. If you don’t want to use a capitalized brand name, then think of an alternate word or phrase:

Band-Aid – adhesive bandage
ChapStick – lip balm
Crock-Pot – slow cooker
Dumpster – large trash receptacle
Formica – laminated plastic product
Freon – refrigerant (or if you want to be picky, “nonflammable gaseous and liquid paraffin hydrocarbon used as a refrigerant or propellant”)
Frisbee – a plastic disk used in games of catch
Jacuzzi – whirlpool bath
Jeep – multi-purpose motor vehicle
Jell-O – flavored gelatine dessert
Kleenex – paper tissue
Mace – disabling liquid sprayed in a person’s face
Post-Its – small pieces of note paper with adhesive strip on the back
Q-tips – cotton swabs on sticks
Rollerblade – in-line skate
Vaseline – petroleum jelly

When in doubt, look the word up in a dictionary. If it’s there, and if it’s a protected trademark, it will be capitalized.


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14 Responses to “Are You Guilty of Genericide?”

  • Milena Thomas

    I feel particularly bad for google or xerox being “verbed” to death. It’s a sign of their success. But, if there is a legal problem, I’ll be sure to avoid it. Thanks for the tip!

  • alece

    why wouldn’t a brand want their name used as a verb? i would think it’s in google’s best interest that it’s become a common-use verb. since it’s a part of everyday conversation, people are more apt to choose their product over someone else’s.

    you don’t hear anyone saying “why don’t you MSN live search that?”

    exactly.

  • Michele

    Oh, wow. I’m sure I’m guilty of this. Oops! I will try to think about how I’m using such words before I publish or submit finished work from now on.

  • Cassie Tuttle

    This is a great topic! Words come and go for various reasons. “Genericide” is a great new word to describe what’s happened to certain words. Although, it’s not really their “death”–more like a rebirth.

    I wonder–legally–how and when these protected-by-trademark words give up that special identity … and how many lawyers are involved in the process!

  • TFP

    We’ve all heard someone say, “I photoshopped that image really well.” Apparently, Adobe doesn’t like that one bit. Adobe has an entire section of legalese on their website devoted to the word “Photoshop” and its proper uses, including examples.

    —- EXAMPLE —-

    CORRECT: Those who use Adobe® Photoshop® software to manipulate images as a hobby see their work as an art form.
    INCORRECT: A photoshopper sees his hobby as an art form.

    —-

    Use the link below and scroll to the section entitled “Proper use of the Photoshop trademark”. It’s hilarious, like they really think it’s going to make this phenomenon simply go away.

    http://www.adobe.com/misc//trade.html#photoshop

  • Charlie

    I agree with Cassie. I would think having the brand name become part of the language would help keep it in the public’s mind. Sort of like free advertising. Especially if it is a product used for a processing – xeroxing, photoshopping. Sort of aces the competitors for free publicity.

  • NJMark

    “Why wouldn’t a brand want their name used as a verb?”

    It doesn’t help the Kimberly-Clark corporation if people call it a kleenex, but then buy Marcal tissues.

    And when a brand name becomes accepted in language as though it were the generic name of the product, the company can lose the trademarking, and along with it, the exclusive right to use that name. (Examples, from aspirin to zipper, were cited in the article above.)

    There’s not a whole lot the companies can do about it, but they can try. It’s why the Band-Aid song was reworked as “I am stuck on Band-Aid Brand” and Robert Young recommended “Sanka Brand,” as though it were one word.

  • LGW

    Aspirin and heroin are actually special cases, perhaps unique – Aspirin wasn’t “genericided,” and is still under trademark in much of the world.

    Bayer made chemical weapons in WWI. As part of the treaty that ended WWI, Bayer lost the trademark on Aspirin and Heroin in the US as punishment.

  • Lamanai

    I don’t agree on this suggestion of “non-genericiding” pointed out in the article. I’m in the same boat with those of you who think that this phenomenon serves label owners as a natural and remarkably strong effortless marketing tools, albeit unintentional it is. Genericided brand names associate a well-established product. It is not a degradation of the company or weakening of the product, it is an honour directly expressed to the label owner by public (unless the genericided brand name is used in negative connotations of course), not speaking of the fact that this behaviour recruits potentional customers and product users.

    Anyway, I am a bit suspicious of some famous writers having even signed a kind of contract with some companies to point out their products in their successful or expected-to-be-successful books.

    I would also like to thank LGW for their interesting post.

    And sorry for my English I am not a native speaker.

  • AE

    what happens when the company’s trademark name is the same as the product trademark that is getting “genericided” by the public? The product diversification under the company’s trademark becomes an uphill challenge. Imagine Kleenex corporation launching Kleenex gloves (for dishwashing), Kleenex steelwool pad, etc. How does the “genericided” product trademark impact the company’s ability to brand new product categories diversification? Should the company still use the company’s “corporate” trademark on new product extensions despite the fact that the public is genericiding the original well-established product? Is that a good leverage or a heavy luggage for product diversification?

  • Rebecca

    This was an interesting article. I never thought about brand names that are now generic words. I wonder, “How long did it take for the ‘brand names’ to become generic words?” It’s something to think about when you think of a company or product name.

  • David

    A children’s TV show in the UK on the BBC, Blue Peter, used to have to avoid using trademarks at all, so cellotape was referred to as “sticky-back plastic”. I wonder how many trademarks they used accidentally, like Hoover…

  • Ed

    The first use of the verb “google” was by George Ade in 1922, in a short story titled “Single Blessedness.”

    Mr. Ade was a noted writer, and his work was copyrighted, and published again in a 1942 collection of short stories that included works by Hemingway, Steinbeck, Willa Cather, and others.

  • Nitin Balodi

    Trademark generecide is really a nightmare for any enterprises whether small or large. You have been working on it since its inception and then you find that it is going to die. It hurts actually.

    “Prevention is always better than cause”

    I believe companies/trademark holders have to build strategies to avoid these sort of issues. One has to find out the causes and then has to implement the steps to prevent them.

    One thing is pretty sure that trademark genrecide is a by product of excessive marketing or better to say excessive improper branding.

    One has to form guidelines to use proper name and a long list of what to avoid during marketing campaign to overcome this battle.

    -Nitin

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