April 27, 2012

Words of the Month - A Word From Our Sponsors

        The linocut or linoleum block prints that I feature from time to time are not only a wonderful relief printing medium - they're also an example of a genericized trademark, or proprietary eponym.  Eponyms, you recall, are words derived from proper nouns, and today the proper nouns in question are brand names of products.  Linoleum, a fabulous new floor covering material named by Frederick Walton in 1864, is generally credited with being the first product name to be ruled a generic term.
Humble flooring material reaches its apotheosis as relief print medium.
        In some ways you'd think a corporation would be delighted to have their product be so dominant that its name trumps every other brand in the field.  The down side, however, is that once the courts rule a trademark generic, then competing brands get to use the word for their own version, too.  As far as everyday speakers are concerned, it's just a word.  You know the process of genericization is complete when most people don't realize the word was ever a trademarked brand name - and when the actual original generic term sounds unfamiliar and silly!  Some of the words on this list are still legally registered trademarks, while others have lost their trademark status, but all are used as generic terms at least in my idiolect.
adrenalin (Parke-Davis, epinephrine)
aspirin (Bayer, acetylsalicylic acid - It's no surprise that so many chemical and medicinal brand names become generic, because it's simply so hard to say - and spell - them by their proper chemical names.)
bubble wrap (Sealed Air, inflated cushioning)
dumpster (Dempster Brothers, Inc., front loader waste container)
escalator (Otis Elevator Company, moving staircase)
heroin (Bayer, diacetylmorphine)
hula hoop (Wham-O, toy hoop)
laundromat (Westinghouse, coin-operated laundry shop)
ping pong (Jaques and Son, now Parker Brothers, table tennis)
plexiglass ("Plexiglas," Altuglas International, shatter-resistant polymer or acrylic glass)
popsicle (Good Humor, ice pop)
realtor (National Association of Realtors, real estate agent)
styrofoam (Dow Chemical Company, extruded polystyrene foam - and another medium for relief printing!)
thermos (Thermos, vacuum flask)
yo-yo (Duncan Yo-Yo Company, spinning toy)
zipper (B.F. Goodrich, continuous separable fastener)
        There are also many words that people generally know are technically brand names, but which we still use in a generic sense.  Examples of these include:
band-aid (Johnson & Johnson, adhesive bandage)
chap stick (Wyeth Consumer Healthcare, lip balm)
frisbee (Wham-O, flying disc)
jacuzzi (Jacuzzi, hot tub)
kleenex (Kimberly-Clarke, facial tissue)
Q-tip (Unilever, cotton swab)
velcro (Velcro, hook-and-loop tape fastener)
xerox (Xerox, photocopy - Xerox corporation have worked aggressively to retain control of their name, but its use as a generic is eloquently demonstrated by the fact that it can now be a verb, too.)

Relief printing fun with "extruded polystyrene foam."
        Which trademarks become proprietary eponyms varies widely between regional dialects.  Sometimes this depends on which brands are prevalent in an area.  For example, the brand name biro is a generic term for disposable ballpoint pen in the UK, but the brand is unknown in the US, so of course the word isn't used here.  When I lived in Ireland the other kids thought I was nuts for saying I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, because for them "jelly" was the term for the gelatin dessert that in my dialect was called by the genericized trademark jello.  (Plus, back then peanut butter was practically unknown in Ireland, too!)  Hoover is another example of a brand name that's genericized in the UK but not the USA, although I don't know why, since the company is US-based.  In the UK it's not only a noun but a verb, too.
        There are tons more examples, which you can find by googling… so I'll leave you with that recent addition to the lexicon.  The Google corporation is working hard to maintain their brand status, but the verbification of their trademark is both a badge of their success and a danger sign of potential generification.  So stay tuned into the language as we continue to gain more words from our sponsors…

[Pictures: Finial and Madonna and Child, linoleum blocks carved by AEGN, 1998 and 1987;
Dragonflies and Fish, styrofoam blocks carved by AEGN, 1999 and 1998.]


Richard said...

So bayer invented Heroin then - funny to think about that really!

Love your blog!!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Thanks for commenting, Richard.
Presumably heroin was developed as a pain reliever - funny/sad that it's famous for its abuse instead of its intended purpose.

Nan said...

Hoover was always a verb in my family when I was growing up in upstate New York. Must be an isolated case.

Always enjoy your blog when I get a chance to get here and catch up.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Interesting, Nan. Maybe I was wrong about it being a UK thing only. I'd love to hear whether any other US-ians used it.