Today’s vocabulary word, boys and girls, is genericide. Don’t bother heading to the dictionary to find it, as it’s not an officially recognized term in linguistic circles, which is in some measure ironic. Instead, break out some legal texts, as genericide is lawyer-slang for the “death” suffered by a trademark that has become so popular it can’t be legally protected anymore.
More specifically, genericide refers to the creation of a genericized trademark, as in a trademark that has become so synonymous with a product or service with which it is associated that the trademark becomes interchangeable with the generic term. The classic example is the trademark Aspirin, which was originally just one particular brand — held by Bayer — of the drug acetylsalicylic acid. Today, however, you’ll find several brands of aspirin (note the lowercase, a sure sign that the trademark is lost), of which Bayer is just one. (Bayer’s relinquishing of its aspirin trademark came under unusual circumstances, but is nonetheless a cogent example of genericide.)
The first known use of genericide to describe the genericization of a trademark was in the March 7, 1983 issue of Legal Times, which included the article “Court Rules that ‘Monopoly’ Has Suffered Genericide.” The article covered a rather headline-grabbing U.S. trademark law case involving the famous board game Monopoly, which had become so popular that its manufacturer, Parker Brothers, could no longer legally fend off the creation of derivative or imitative games that invoked the name Monopoly.
For the past 25 years, trademark enforcement has enjoyed the use of the (ostensibly un-trademarked) term genericide to describe the many brands that have been so saturated into the public consciousness as to defy usefulness to the trademark holder. While trademark law varies from country to country, genericide is the acknowledged English-speaker’s term of art for the creation of a genericized trademark.
The antidote to genericide is vigilant and vigorous trademark enforcement, some of which borders on the absurd. Sony went so far with its defense of the Walkman trademark as to ban unapproved plural uses of the word. Trademarks, you see, are by and large proper adjectives, which describe more general product types. This can be a problem for inventors who create new product types, and thus not only must invent a brand, but also its generic product family to enforce copyright. Ironically, one of the very same authorities that preside over the process of genericide — an authority on language — has become a victim of genericide itself.
WHAT POPULAR LINGUISTIC AUTHORITY HAS BECOME A CLASSIC EXAMPLE OF TRADEMARK GENERICIDE?
Webster’s dictionary is, despite the proper name and its use as an adjective, a victim of American genericide.
While in some measure, all modern dictionaries are derived from the works of lexicographer Noah Webster, only the Merriam-Webster line of dictionaries is actually published by a company with direct roots to Noah himself. That said, there are a wide variety of Webster’s dictionaries available that aren’t published by Merriam-Webster, some from the likes of publishing giants such as Random House or John Wiley & Sons. These tomes are all legally published and distributed dictionaries of the American English language, as recognized under U.S. law. Webster’s has become so synonymous with the word dictionary in the United States that any American dictionary can legally be called Webster’s.
This is why Google puts up such a fuss about its name being used as a verb. This usage has not, in and of itself, led to any trademark dilution as of yet, but if you were to consult the Merriam-Webster Online dictionary for the definition of google, you would see the following results: “To use the Google search engine to obtain information about (as a person) on the World Wide Web.” Or, you know, just google the phrase google as verb.
If you think Google is overreacting with its defensiveness, take a gander at another tech company whose premier product has also been verbed. Xerox continues to vigorously defend its trademark, despite the fact that xerox is now a recognized synonym for photocopying. The company that whiffed on the Alto computer has run massive ad campaigns declaring “you cannot ‘xerox’ a document, but you can copy it on a Xerox Brand copying machine.” The former king of copiers doesn’t want its tech to meet the same fate as the once-capitalized forms of escalator, dry ice, trampoline, cellophane, and zipper, all of which were once distinct brands but are now mere thesaurus entries.
Sony, Google, and Xerox’s efforts may be mere whistling past the trademark graveyard, but they make for a genericidally genuine jolt of litigious Geek Trivia.
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