Losing Capital

by Karen Jeynes

The other day, whilst hoovering, my mind started to wander. It also started to ache, so I had some aspirin, and sat down to read a tabloid. There was a particularly moving story in it, so I reached for the kleenex, and then settled my nerves with a bowl of granola.

So how many brand names do you see in that paragraph? Hoover and Kleenex might be easiest to spot, they’re still fighting the fight against genericism. But aspirin, tabloid and granola have already lost the battle. In fact, Tabloid – the brand – is a form of tablet, nothing to do with a certain kind of newspaper. And these days, you can read tabloids on your tablet.

It’s a difficult line for a brand to walk. You want to be the most popular, the most talked about, but you definitely don’t want to risk becoming so acceptable a part of daily language that you lose your capital letter – and potentially your trademarks. As the people at Hoover will attest, it’s often when your brand name is verbified that your problems really start. It’s a battle that Google are fighting on a daily basis, relentlessly designing autocorrect functions to try and prevent people from typing “googling” or “googled” – but they can’t autocorrect our speech, and they’re fighting a losing battle.

A remarkable number of words that we use now were once brand names – saran wrap, trampoline, escalator, jungle gym…all words the patent office has ruled are now in such common use they cannot be controlled. While cellophane lost this privilege in the US, it remains Cellophane in the UK. Duncan Toys went to court to try and protect Yo-Yo in 1965, but, after much back and forth, the judge ruled it was now in common speech.

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Heroin, famously, was once a trademark of the Bayer company (along with the aforementioned aspirin). Some think they distanced themselves from it and were happy to lose the trademark, but in fact it was lost due to Germany’s defeat in World War I, as part of the Treaty of Versailles – not a part often mentioned in school history books.

Zip codes, zippers, bikinis, kerosene, app store, lanolin, all have lost the legal right to consider themselves proper nouns. But who else, alongside Google, is fighting the capitalist fight? Chap Stick  is one, as is Boogie Board, two words I strongly associate with childhood beach trips, neither with the brands they actually represent. But as I googled, I was astonished to discover how many words I casually use are in fact, technically, trademarked – Thermos, Dumpsters (amusingly, a trademark of Dempster), Hi-Liters, Laundromats, Velcro, even Kitty Litter are the intellectual property of people who doubtless fume and pout on a daily basis.

Closer to home for wordnerds is Webster’s Dictionary – Merriam-Webster trademarked “Merriam-Webster”, but never thought to trademark “Webster’s Dictionary”, so anyone who fancies it can publish a volume by that name.

Of course, as quickly as words lose their trademarks through common usage, companies queue up to buy others. As I type, King are attempting to copyright the “candy” and “saga” of – you guessed it – “Candy Crush Saga”, and McDonald’s hopes to claim new words on a daily basis. But, as all the dictionaries, even all the Webster’s Dictionaries, will tell you, it’s the way people speak that wins in the end.

Which sadly means we have no one but ourselves to blame for onesies.

 

If you’re keen to spot more former and current brands that have become part of daily speech, take a look at our wordsearch – and find the solution here.

Karen Jeynes

About Karen Jeynes

Karen Jeynes (@karenjeynes) is a playwright, dramaturg, wordsmith, proponent of the Oxford comma, and collector of words. She has been known to rub her hands with girlish glee on discovering a new one. She experiences high levels of angst over misplaced apostrophes, sometimes having to have a bit of a lie down. She is perilously partial to puns. And also alliteration.

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14 Comments to “Losing Capital”

  1. Wait wait wait…You’ve blown my mind!

    • I’m still trying to figure out what kitty litter was called before…Kitty Litter! Hope your mind recovers, Peter.

  2. Wow, so brands actually lose legal protection if they become too well known? Fascinating! Thanks Karen :-)

  3. Another funny clever piece from you Karen. If you wrote our history books they’d be far more interesting!

  4. Ha! This made me laugh a lot. Thanks :-)

  5. Ha! I love this, I shall subvertively use brands more often now. Don’t call me, I’ll iphone you!

  6. I always appreciate that your writing is insightful, amusing, and succint. Win all round!

  7. That misplaced, or rather missing, apostrophe in ‘McDonald’s’ might well give you angst, if they sue…

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