Are You Guilty of Genericide?
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.
Have you finished xeroxing that report?
They prefer that we say or write
Go do a Google search for a potato soup recipe.
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.