Genericide (Nouns)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Man pouring hot water out of Thermos
For many years the word Thermos was a registered trademark in the U.S. It lost this status in 1963 when a court ruled that thermos had become a popular generic term for a vacuum flask. In other words, the trademark had experienced genericide. (In some other countries, Thermos has retained its status as a trademark.). Robin Skjoldborg/Getty Images

Genericide is a legal term for generification: the historical process whereby a brand name or trademark is transformed through popular usage into a common noun.

One of the earliest uses of the term genericide (from the Latin words for "kind, class" and "killing") was in the late 1970s when it was used to characterize Parker Brothers' initial loss of the trademark Monopoly. (The decision was overturned in 1984, and Parker Brothers continues to hold the trademark for the board game.)

Bryan Garner quotes a judge's observation that the term genericide is a malapropism: "It refers to the death of the trademark, not to the death of the generic name for the product.

A more accurate term might be trademarkicide, or perhaps even generization, either of which seems to better capture the idea that the trademark dies by becoming a generic name" (Garner's Dictionary of Legal Usage, 2011).

Examples and Observations of Genericide

  • Genericide is a situation in which "the majority of the relevant public [appropriates] the name of a product. . . . Once declared to be a generic name, the designation enters the 'linguistic commons' and is free for all to use."
    (J. Thomas McCarthy, McCarthy on Trademarks and Unfair Competition. Clark Boardman Callaghan, 1996)
  • Justification for Genericide
    "Former trademarks that have become generic include aspirin, trampoline, cellophane, shredded wheat, thermos, and dry ice. From a trademark owner's perspective, genericide is ironic: The trademark owner has been so successful in making its mark well-known that it loses protection in the mark. However, the policy rationale supporting genericide reflects consumer interests in free speech and effective communication by both consumers and manufacturers. For example, if the trademark 'Thermos' had not been held by a federal appeals court to be a generic term, what word other than 'thermos' would today's competing manufacturers use to describe their products?"
    (Gerald Ferrera, et al., CyberLaw: Text and Cases, 3rd ed. South-Western, Cengage, 2012)
     

  • Genericide as a Type of Broadening
    "The relationship between generic words and trademarks is of interest to historical linguistics in a number of ways, central among which is the important fact that the status of a word with respect to its genericness can be open to question and can even change through time. Lexicographers and law-school professors cite such words as aspirin, shredded wheat, thermos, and escalator as words that once were trademarks but now are generics; lawyers term this process of historical linguistic change 'genericide.' . . .

    "Genericide can be viewed as a subcategory of broadening, similar therefore to the process that has affected scores of English words--for example, dog, which at one time referred to a specific kind of canis familiaris rather than to dogs in general."
    (Ronald R. Butters and Jennifer Westerhaus, "Linguistic Change in Words One Owns: How Trademarks Become 'Generic.'" Studies in the History of the English Language II: Unfolding Conversations, ed. by A. Curzan and K. Emmons. Walter de Gruyter, 2004)
  • Kleenex, Baggies, and Xerox
    "Today, the fear of genericide haunts the proprietors of Kleenex, Baggies, Xerox, Walkman, Plexiglas, and Rollerblade, who worry about competitors being able to steal the names (and the reputation they have earned) for their own products. Writers who use the names as verbs, common nouns, or in lowercase type may find themselves at the receiving end of a stern cease-and-desist letter."
    (Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought. Viking, 2007)