A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Is there a term for "trade names that become generic"?

Dear Straight Dope:

What is the word that describes the use of trade names to mean much more than that particular trade name? Examples: Let's go get a Coke. I'll make you a Xerox copy. Put a Gem Clip on it. I need to Hoover my rug.

First off, Spike, the companies that own the trademarks to those particular brand names will be very displeased to know that you consider these names to mean anything other than the products they sell. Except maybe for Gem clip; I've never heard that one. Maybe Gem will take satisfaction in knowing at least one guy considers their name first when selecting a paper clip.

Sure, we might think the highest achievement of a successful product is, in fact, for consumers to think of their name before all others, but while companies spend billions to ensure that their products become "household names," they then spend millions more to prevent these household names from being applied to any products beside their own. Two products you mention, Coca-Cola and Xerox, are probably the best-known examples of contemporary products going to great lengths to fight this fight. Coke has won lawsuits against restaurants who serve another brand of cola when their customers ask for a Coke, although they did lose the proprietary right to the name "cola," because it's descriptive of the product.

Some products which are still registered trademarks despite the assault on their names include AstroTurf, Baggies, Band-Aid, Beer Nuts, Breathalyzer, Brillo Pads, Dacron, Dumpster, Frisbee, Hi-Liter, Hula-Hoop, Jacuzzi, Jeep, Jell-O, Jockey Shorts, Kitty Litter, Kleenex, Laundromat, Liquid Paper, Magic Marker, Muzak, Novocain, Ping-Pong, Play-Doh, Popsicle, Post-it Note, Q-Tip, Realtor, Rollerblade, Scotch Tape, Scrabble, Seeing Eye (dog), Sheetrock, Slim Jim, Styrofoam, Super glue, Technicolor, Teflon, TelePrompTer, Vaseline, Velcro, and Walkman.

Words which have gone the way of "cola," that is, former trademarks that have been ruled (legally) descriptive words, and therefore, no longer owned by the companies or individuals who invented them, include aspirin, brassiere, cellophane, corn flakes, escalator, granola, gunk, heroin, jungle gym, kerosene, linoleum, raisin bran, shredded wheat, tabloid, thermos, touch-tone, trampoline, yo-yo, and zipper.

You can see, then, why companies would get stressed about this. There actually used to be a Zipper brand zipper, and any other metal, sliding fasteners had to come up with a name which simply wouldn't be as, well, zippy, and therefore memorable and above all marketable.

Now, to the question you asked: what are such words called? Unfortunately, there's simply no clear answer. When this question came up on the Straight Dope Message Board on AOL, resident grammarian Bermuda999 mentioned that one commonly used term is the awkward "generic descriptor," undoubtedly the way these things should be referred to legally. A term you mght see for what befalls a word, and a trademark holder, when it loses its brand name, is the waggish "genericide," and you might term the words "victims of genericide," but if "generic descriptor" is awkward, "victim of genericide" is hopeless.

Richard Lederer, in Crazy English, suggests that these words are similar to words like sandwich, cardigan, tantalize, braille, and leotard, that is to say, words coined for people with whom they were associated. These words are called "eponyms." At least two of the brand names above (jacuzzi and frisbee) derived their names from the names of people, so there may be something to Lederer's contention. I asked him (yes, asked him--E-mail is a wonderful invention for pedantic researchers like me) about this, but pointed out that, although the etymology of the word (Greek, meaning "after or upon a name") wouldn't exclude brand names from the definition, no independent source, including every dictionary I could find, fails to mention that eponyms are derived from names of people, e.g., the OED, "one who gives, or is supposed to give, his name to a people, place, or institution." He told me "good point" (YES!) and mention that perhaps "brand eponyms" might be a more acceptable usage. Still, 'eponym' has the advantage of being a single real word, with a familiar ending ("-nym") denoting some special type of word, whose definition could include the situation we're talking about without too much stretching. Hope that'll do.

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