Proprietary Eponyms

In Web Words I talked about knowing when a company has “made it” based on how their brand is accepted into our vocabulary, and particularly when it becomes a verb.  A more common and familiar measure is when a brand becomes a proprietary eponym, AKA genericized trademark.

Band-Aid, Coke, Kleenex, Saran Wrap, Q-tips, Scotch tape, and Xerox are some of the ones we hear all the time.  We’re mostly aware that they are brands but we use the words generically anyway.  In most cases this is because that brand either invented the product or simply owned the market for as long we we can remember.

Here’s a few more.  Some may surprise you.

  • Crock-pot is a trademark of Rival/Sunbeam.
  • Heroin & Aspirin were both once Bayer trademarks.  In fact, outside of the US Aspirin is still a Bayer trademark.
  • Dumpster is a bit of confusing story.  The word is used generically now and all the trademarks I checked were expired.  dumpter.com is a Waste Management website which uses the word dumpster extensively.  It seems that a one point there was a Dumpster brand, apparently owned by Dempster Brothers, but I think they are no more.
  • Netbook is owned by Psion, but this is currently being fought out in court.  Dell and Intel are trying to get the trademark stripped and have the courts declare it a generic term.  Psion trademarked the term in 1996.
  • You have never had a cup of coffee in a Styrofoam cup. There’s no such thing as a Styrofoam cup. Maybe you’ve had a drink from a cup made of molded expanded polystyrene beads, but never from the extruded polystyrene foam The Dow Chemical Company calls Styrofoam.  In fact there are no disposable products made of Styrofoam.
  • If you freeze flavored water on a stick you should call it a “quiescently frozen confection” to avoid a lawsuit. Popsicle, along with Breyers, Klondike, Good Humor, and Ben & Jerry’s are owned by Unilever.
  • Escalator was trademarked by the Otis Elevator Company in 1900 but they lost the trademark in a lawsuit in 1950.  The courts determined that Otis had used the word escalator as a generic descriptive term, and it was widely recognized by the public as the term for all moving stairways, regardless of the manufacturer.   It makes for an interesting case study in the development of the proprietary eponym.
  • Although the device itself was invented in Sweeden by Gideon Sundback, the word Zipper was trademarked by the B. F. Goodrich Company in 1925.  If you’ve always wondered why so many of your zippers say “YKK”, that’s Yoshida Kogyo Kabushiki-gaisha, the Toyko-based world’s largest manufacturer of zippers.
  • And of course, what self-respecting practitioner of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu could have this conversation with mentioning Gracie Jiu Jitsu.  I hardly ever hear the term “Gracie Jiu Jitsu” any more.  Most people say either “Brazilian Jiu Jitsu” or simply “BJJ”.  I remember when I first got in to this sport hearing that the Gracie family lost control of the name  “Gracie Jiu Jitsu” because it had become so widely recognized as the name for the sport.  I never really bothered looking in to it until today.  As it turns out Rorion Gracie does have  a trademark on the term.

Bart: Otto-Man? You’re living in a dumpster?
Otto: Ho, man, I wish. Dumpster-brand trash bins are top-of-the-line. This is just a Trash-Co waste disposal unit.

— The Simpsons  – “The Otto Show”

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