Thursday, November 29, 2012

Generic Trademarks

A generic trademark is a brand name (or trademark) that has become the general name for an entire type of product or service over time. If you've read our recent posts on metonymy and synecdoche, then you'll notice that some generic trademarks qualify as synecdoches, and therefore also metonyms!

Generic trademarks occur when a trademark "erodes" over time. This occurs most frequently when a company creates something that is unlike anything else in existence. However, it can also happen when the thing is so popular or revolutionary that it overshadows all other similar products. Most companies try to prevent trademark erosion if possible. In the 1990s, Nintendo experienced trademark erosion when their name was being used to refer to any game console, which obviously wasn't to their financial benefit. With effort, Nintendo successfully convinced people to refer to the general product as a game console once again.

This is not called a Nintendo. 

However, there are also many cases of trademarks that did fail in their efforts and eventually succumbed to what is known as genericide. If your brand becomes too generic, then your trademark status can be revoked. We're sure it causes all sorts of nightmarish legal problems for companies, but we're more interested in the words that are involved. We've listed a few interesting generic trademarks below... you might be surprised to find out that some of them were once brand names!

Aspirin and Heroin - These names for acetylsalicylic acid and diacetylmorphine were created by Bayer. The name for heroin was actually derived from the Greek hero due to the drug's "heroic" effects on its users.

Cellophane - DuPont trademarked this term for cellulose film, which is used to package foods due to its moisture-proofing.

Escalator - The Otis Elevator Company trademarked this name for a new machine used to transport people between floors. It's also interesting to note that the verb to escalate was derived from the machine's name and not the other way around!

Petrol - Though this word is obviously a shortened form of the word petroleum, it was in fact trademarked by a British wholesaler in the 1800s.

Thermos - Remember that insulated plastic container that kept your soup hot until lunchtime as a kid? You know, the one that matched your super cool lunchbox with your favorite cartoon characters on it. Well, it turns out that the original term for such a product was a vacuum flask!

Too bad for Harry Truman that they didn't have awesome
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lunchboxes in the 1890s...

Unlike the words above, there are tons of other protected trademarks that are often used as generic terms, but haven't officially lost their trademark status yet. These terms can then be considered a type of synecdoche, since their specific trademark is being used to refer to the general class of things it belongs to. Here are some of our favorites:

AstroTurf - This specific type of artificial turf was created by the Monsanto Company. It was called "ChemGrass" at first, but was changed to the much cooler-sounding AstroTurf following its famous use in the Houston Astrodome stadium.

Band-Aid (U.S.) and Elastoplast (UK) - These brand names are commonly used on both sides of the pond instead of the generic and frankly boring term adhesive bandage.

Biro - Often heard in the UK and Australia, this name for a ballpoint pen is derived from the name of its inventor, László Bíró.

Coke - In some parts of the Southern U.S. people refer to any soft drink by this name. Imagine the following conversation: "What would you like to drink?" "I'll have a Coke." "What kind?" "Oh, I guess I'll have a Mountain Dew." Seems crazy to us, but to each their own...

Dumpster - We're not kidding with this one... it turns out that this mobile waste container was actually trademarked in 1963 by the Dempster Brothers, who combined the word "dump" with their last name. Really. 

Durex - Trademarked by two different companies on opposite sides of the world, it can refer to either adhesive tape in Brazil and Australia, or condoms in the UK and Spain. Brazilians probably get some funny looks in Spanish stationery stores when they ask for Durex...

Google - We should all know that Google is just one of many internet search engines, but it seems to have captured the devotion of the masses... so much so that "to google" has become a commonly used verb, even when you're using Bing.

Hoover - While it is still known by the generic vacuum cleaner in the U.S., this word is widely used in the UK both as a noun and as a verb, as in "I really ought to hoover the carpet, it's filthy!"


Unfortunately, hoovering isn't a popular dance
 craze named after J. Edgar Hoover.

Jacuzzi - Originally an Italian brand of hot tub or whirlpool bath.

Kleenex - This brand of facial tissue is used generically throughout the world, including in the U.S., France, Canada and Spain.

Muzak - If you've ever been to the top of a skyscraper, you probably heard some elevator music. An American company called Muzak Holdings has been creating this inoffensive background music to retail stores and other companies since the 1930s, and eventually their name stuck.

Philadelphia - In some countries, cream cheese is referred to as Philadelphia. Trademarked by Kraft Foods, the brand was named for the Pennsylvania city known for producing this particular cheese product.

Ping Pong - Yes, really. Ping Pong is actually trademarked by game manufacturer Parker Brothers. Most official events require that this sport be called by its generic name, table tennis.


See? We weren't making it up.

Rollerblade - A trademarked brand of inline skates. Who knew?

Scotch tape (U.S.) and Sellotape (UK) - Two different brands of clear adhesive tape, but both are almost always used instead of the generic in each of these countries.

Styrofoam - Apparently Brits call it polystyrene, but Americans and Canadians prefer to use the brand name.

Super Glue - We're absolutely shocked that cyanoacrylate adhesive isn't used more often when referring to this handy household product. (Just don't glue your fingers together!)

Taser - This electroshock weapon or stun gun was named by a nerdy NASA researcher who had loved the book Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle as a child. It just so happens that the main character of the book has a rifle that shoots electricity. The NASA researcher was inspired later in life to create such a weapon, which he named the Taser, as in "Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle".

Moral of our story: Reading a book
can change your life and inspire you
to invent new weaponry!