How a Brand Name Becomes a Noun

Generification: Aspirin, Yo-Yos, and Trampolines

Once a brand name, the word yo-yo has undergone the process of generification. (Hugh Threlfall/Getty Images)

Generification is the use of specific brand names of products as names for the products in general. 

In numerous cases over the past century, the colloquial use of a brand name as a generic term has led to the loss of a company's right to the exclusive use of that brand name. (The legal term for this is genericide.) For example, the common nouns aspirin, yo-yo, and trampoline were once legally protected trademarks. (In many countries—but not in the United States or the United Kingdom—Aspirin remains a registered trademark of Bayer AG.)

Etymology: From the Latin, "kind"

Generification and Dictionaries

"A surprising number of words have developed contentious generic meanings: they include aspirin, band-aid, escalator, filofax, frisbee, thermos, tippex, and xerox. And the problem facing the lexicographer [dictionary-maker] is how to handle them. If it is everyday usage to say such things as I have a new hoover: it's an Electrolux, then the dictionary, which records everyday usage, should include the generic sense. The principle has been tested several times in the courts and the right of the dictionary-makers to include such usages is repeatedly upheld. But the decision still has to be made: when does a proprietary name develop a sufficient general usage to be safely called generic?"

From Brand Names to Generic Terms

These words below have gradually slipped from brand names to generic terms.

  • elevator and escalator were both originally trademarks of the Otis Elevator Company.
  • zipper: A name given to a 'separable fastener' by the B.F. Goodrich Company many years after it was invented. The new name helped the zipper attain popularity in the 1930s.
  • loafer: For a moccasin-like shoe.
  • cellophane: For a transparent wrap made of cellulose.
  • granola: A trademark registered in 1886 by W.K. Kellogg, now used for a 'natural' kind of breakfast cereal. 
  • ping pong: For table tennis, a trademark registered by Parker Brothers in 1901.

Source

  • David Crystal, Words, Words, Words. Oxford University Press, 2006 
  • Allan Metcalf, Predicting New Words: The Secrets of Their Success. Houghton Mifflin, 2002