Brand Names That Become Real Words

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I’m amazed that there isn’t a word for this. It seems like there is a linguistic term for just about everything (e.g., portmanteau, metonymy, synecdoche, euphemism, homophones, feghoot, scesis onomaton, Esprit de l’escalier, etc.), but as far as I can tell, there isn’t a term for trademarked brand names that become household words.

That plate-shaped thing kids toss to each other on the beach or at the park. It’s a Frisbee, right? Not necessarily. Technically, it’s a flying disc. Only discs produced by the Wham-O company are Frisbees. They have the patent and trademark.

We commonly refer to bunches of common items by what are actually trade names: Q-tips, Band-aids, Kleenex, even Dumpsters.

And you’d think companies would be thrilled. I mean, to so dominate a market that everyone thinks of your brand name when they think of a product has to be a sign of astounding success, right?. Not so much, apparently. The Coca-Cola company wasn’t so keen on the idea of people calling all colas “coke.” How many times have you been to a restaurant and ordered a coke only to be asked, “Pepsi okay?” Unless you are very particular about your colas, you probably say something like, “Yeah, whatever.” Coca-cola spent a lot of money fighting legal battles over this. You can’t call something a coke unless it’s really a coke. They wanted proprietary rights on the word cola too, but that didn’t fly; it’s considered simply a descriptive term.

Over time, lots of companies have lost the rights to their brand names. I guess that’s why Coke (and Xerox too) went to so much trouble to protect them. Originally, all of the following everyday dictionary words were trademarked by inventors or manufacturers. Now anyone can use them:

  • aspirin
  • brassiere
  • cellophane
  • corn flakes
  • escalator
  • granola
  • jungle gym
  • kerosene
  • linoleum
  • shredded wheat
  • thermos
  • trampoline
  • yo-yo
  • zipper

But the following, even though you and I may use them without reference to a particular brand, are still protected trademarks:

  • AstroTurf
  • Band-Aid
  • Beer Nuts
  • Brillo Pads
  • Dumpster
  • Frisbee
  • Hi-Liter
  • Hula-Hoop
  • Jacuzzi
  • Jell-O
  • Kitty Litter
  • Kleenex
  • Laundromat
  • Magic Marker
  • Ping-Pong
  • Play-Doh
  • Popsicle
  • Q-Tip
  • Realtor
  • Rollerblade
  • Scotch Tape
  • Styrofoam
  • TelePrompTer
  • Vaseline
  • Velcro

But there’s no word for this phenomenon. Some have suggested it is a type of eponym, which is a word that derives originally from a person’s name (like cardigan, braille, quixotic, or Parkinson‘s). But no authoritative source recognizes this brand-name-turned-household-word as an eponym.

So, we need a word for it! Any ideas? Brandonym? Trademarkism? Debrandification? I’ll take suggestions in the comments.

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. akageorge
    akageorge09-05-2013

    OK, not a word, but a phrase. It’s a genericized trademark or proprietary eponym: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genericized_trademark.

  2. Connie Akers
    Connie Akers06-14-2013

    I think eponym works best for this, too, since each of the words refer to a name. These are all names, but brands instead of people.

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