Q&A: Trademark my words

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we trademark our words…

Q: Hey, quick question!
A: Those ones are usually the longest…
Q: What's an eponym? Are they banning it at the Olympics?
A: You might be thinking of the banned substance EPO. An eponym is a word named after a person. Here's a bunch of them.
Q: Wow, thanks. Okay, let me have a read.
A: Seriously? You're going to read all 23 now?
Q: Haha, boycott. Nice. Sorry, what?
A: It's a bit rude.
Q: Fair enough. I'll finish that later. So if those are eponyms, then what is it when we use brand names as generic names for things? My friend said THEY were eponyms, but I thought maybe “generic trademarks”?
A: You're referring to things like “kleenex” or “xerox” – brands that have come to be associated with ALL brands in a category, yes?
Q: Yes. But now I'm wondering what would happen if I put Kleenex into a Xerox machine. Would more tissues come out?
A: No.
Q: Oh, okay.
A: So you CAN call them “generic trademarks” but the more boffin term for them is “proprietary eponyms”.
Q: Oooh la la, look at you all fancy with your proprietaries. So these brand names or trademarks were clearly successful for this to catch on, right?
A: Yes absolutely. That's the point. They became such the dominant force – either through actual sales, clever advertising or simply being first in the market – that people just end up calling everything that brand name.
Q: Do you have more examples?
A: There are dozens of well known examples, including bubble wrap and band-aids; frisbees and rollerblades; post-it notes and sellotape; or vaseline and superglue.
Q: Oooh, my uncle once got those last two confused. It wasn't pretty.
A: If it were a generic list, it would read as sealed air packaging and sticking plasters; flying discs and inline skates; sticky paper and sticky tape; or petroleum jelly and adhesive glue.
Q: Aren't ALL glues adhesive? Just sayin'…
A: So in most cases, the companies that make these have done nothing to genericise their brand – it just kind of happens by popular demand. They still hold the trademarks, but now everything is called that – which may seem great, but can limit their unique brand positioning.
Q: Good point. Why buy actual Cheezels when I can get Cheezy-hoopy-round-rounds for half the price?
A: Indeed. And then you have words which no longer have active trademarks, but which were once associated with product names – including aspirin, zippers, escalators and heroin – not a banned substance till the 1920s.
Q: So is it b—
A: You're going to ask if it's banned at the Olympics, aren't you? Of course it is.
Q: Okay thanks. So, how about “googling” a celebrity?
A: Shouldn't we finish this thing first?
Q: No, I mean, using the term ‘google' as ‘to search'.
A: Ahhhh. Well yes, even though you probably WOULD use Google to search, that works as the generic term for “looking up on the internet” – i.e. you might go directly to Wikipedia etc.
Q: I prefer to use Yahoo to search.
A: No you don't.
Q: You're right, I don't. Okay, so another one: iPhone?
A: Well yes, that can be synonymous with any smartphone, but in some contexts – perhaps referencing charging adaptors or a new app, it might be specific to iPhones only.
Q: And spam?
A: Well this one is a little strange. Because while the others come to describe all products in their market, spam also has been associated with junk emails or unsolicited material – nothing to do with spiced ham.
Q: These are quite fascinating. Is there a name for placenames that have things named after them?
A: A “toponym” describes both a placename and also a word that comes from a placename. For example, “bikini” comes from “Bikini Atoll” – the island where nuclear testing took place in the 1940s and 50s. Bikini/Bikini Atoll is a toponym. “Stockholm Syndrome” is another.
Q: Oooh, is Stockholm Syndrome where you are taken hostage in IKEA and you slowly grow to love their furniture?
A: Close enough. Actually “IKEA” is close to a proprietary eponym for flat pack furniture.
Q: And don't forget the Swedish meatballs. So, finally – do you think all these brands will pay us for mentioning them today?
A: Not one cent.
Q: I hate this job.


Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you'd like our Q&A to explore this year? Email it to us today!

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