Turning Trademarks into Slang: Journalists Have a Lot of Impact on Trademarks Becoming Part of Everyday Vocabulary. This "Genericide" Can Strip a Company Trademark of Its Meaning and Value

By Czach, Elaine | American Journalism Review, April-May 2004 | Go to article overview

Turning Trademarks into Slang: Journalists Have a Lot of Impact on Trademarks Becoming Part of Everyday Vocabulary. This "Genericide" Can Strip a Company Trademark of Its Meaning and Value


Czach, Elaine, American Journalism Review


In November 2003, the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary included the word "McJob," defined as "a low-paying job that requires little skill and provides little opportunity for advancement," despite the protests of McDonald's Corporation Chairman and CEO Jim Cantalupo and the fact that MCJOBS is a registered U.S. trademark.

In its defense, Merriam-Webster released a statement that said, "For more than 17 years, McJob has been used as we are defining it in a broad range of publications, including The New York Times, U.S. News & World Report, Publishers Weekly, Rolling Stone, The Times (London), The Boston Globe, Ms., Harper's, The New Republic, Utne Reader, and The Vancouver Sun."

Many famous trademarks are fast becoming part of the lexicon--a process termed "genericide." As the "McJob" example shows, journalists have a great impact on this phenomenon, since their improper use of trademarks can have dire effects on business owners.

The Web site www.wordspy.com contains at least 17 examples of trademarks used as new slang terms. For instance, "Amazon" is defined as "to take away business from a more established rival by being the first to build an online presence." "MCI Project" is listed as "a seat-of-the-pants project that is financed and/or built through contributions from one's network of friends and family." "Astroturf" is "a fake grass-roots movement." Wordspy usually includes new terms only when they are found in at least three citations from three different publications and three different writers.

Companies might be naively pleased by the popularity of their trademarks, but the fact remains that when trademarks become part of common vocabulary, they can lose all of their value and become part of the public domain, available for use by anyone. In August 2002, after eight years of litigation between Japanese electronics giant Sony and Viennese electronic retailer Time Tron Corporation, the Austrian Supreme Court ruled that WALKMAN is generic, despite the fact that Sony had maintained an Austrian registration for the mark since 1981. The court based its ruling on the fact that "walkman" was used and understood as a product name both by customers and retailers. …

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Turning Trademarks into Slang: Journalists Have a Lot of Impact on Trademarks Becoming Part of Everyday Vocabulary. This "Genericide" Can Strip a Company Trademark of Its Meaning and Value
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