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Generification: When "Google" Becomes "google"

How tweeting, googling, and McJobs have changed the way we use branded words. When the American Dialect Society met in Baltimore in early...


How tweeting, googling, and McJobs have changed the way we use branded words.
When the American Dialect Society met in Baltimore in early January, many words were recognized. "Hiking the Appalachian trail" (the Mark Sanfordism) was voted Most Euphemistic, "sea kitten" (PETA's silly reinvention of fish) earned Most Unnecessary, and "Dracula sneeze" (blowing a honker into the crook of your elbow to spread fewer germs) won Most Creative. But the big ticket items were "tweet" as word of the year and "google" the verb as word of the decade-two terms not only notable for their popularity, but because both are examples of the generification of language, since "tweet" and "Google" are proprietary terms. The powers-that-be at Google and Twitter may love the publicity, but they can't like that their words are entering the public domain-companies never have and never will.

As W.A. Brewer observed in a 1987 article in American Speech, "Every entrepreneur's dream is to hear his trademark become a household word; his nightmare is then to have his intellectual property dissociated from his particular product or service and become generic." This process-sometimes called "genericization," "generification," "genericide," or (as Orin Hargraves puts it) "trademark creep"-is a common, neverending process. Common words that started as specific, trademarked products include "zipper," "thermos," "escalator," "popsicle," "band-aid," and "pooper-scooper."

Some-like Kleenex, Xerox, and Jell-o-cling to their trademark, even as the terms are used colloquially for any brand. As Hargraves wrote in Visual Thesaurus, trademark creep is "a predictable outcome of living in a world where mass consumerism and saturation marketing is the rule rather than the exception. This is coupled, of course, with what we might call linguistic Darwinism: the survival, propagation, and diversification of the best word for something, based on a consensus of speakers."

That linguistic Darwinism is, for businesses, a case of too much success. Trademark lawyer Jessica Levy gave me a crash course on the topic via email, writing that "...terms are at risk of losing their trademark status when a trademark user's competitors have no option but to use that trademark to identify their own competing products. This problem occurs when companies adopt a trademark without identifying the generic term for the product designated by the trademark." I would make this error if I sold my ingenious new invention the Doowhackey-and the only way I could describe it is by saying...well, it's a doowhackey.

Levy elaborated, "The best example I can think of is RollerBlade. When they came on the scene, I believe they used the term to identify the product itself-and used it in both plural and singular. When competitors came out with their own products, what could they call them? There wasn't a generic term to identify the skates. So RollerBlade, I believe, had to quickly come up with ‘in-line skates' as a generic term, and start reinforcing its use of RollerBlade as a trademark rather than as the generic term. The same thing happened with Starbucks: They came out with ‘Frappuccino,' and competitors clamored to use the same portmanteau of ‘frappe' and ‘cappuccino.' Oops-so they had to backpedal to come up with ‘blended beverage.'"

In a related case, even when a brand name sticks with one product, it takes on meanings that aren't quite what their owners intend-like McDonald's. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines "McDonaldization" as "The spread of influence of the type of efficient, standardized, corporate business or culture regarded as epitomized by the McDonald's restaurant chain. More widely: the spread of the influence of American culture." That's been in use since at least 1975: "The McDonaldization of America... Not only are hams becoming uniformly bland, but so is American taste. Not only are local beers disappearing, but so is local identity."

The burger juggernaut likes the meaning of "McJob" even less: "An unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector." That dates from at least 1986: "The fast-food factories: McJobs are bad for kids." When "Mc" is officially recognized as shorthand for everything awful about standardization, Ronald McDonald is definitely not McLovin' it.

Given how rapidly new technologies go from total obscurity to American-Idol-like popularity-Twittering, TiVoing, and Photoshopping being prime examples-it seems likely this process will continue and accelerate. I, for one, think that's awesome. There's something distinctly power-to-the-people-y about the way these terms get reinvented. As Genine Lentine and Roger W. Shuy (who has also written on the topic on Language Log) wrote in American Speech
In other words, language is a mass phenomenon: a natural, evolving, multi-tentacled beast not easily tamed. You or I can do jack squat to change English. We're powerless. It's kind of cool that mega-corporations like McDonald's and Google are sometimes in the same boat.

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