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Several rogue words have entered our language illicitly, sometimes via trademarks. Some examples are aspirin, margarine, escalator and linoleum.

Having a trademark creates a conundrum. Companies want the name to become synonymous with their products but not synonymous with the products produced by the competition. If a company doesn't protect its intellectual property rights adequately, it can lose the right to keep the brand name. If the typical consumer thinks it's "aspirin" and not "Aspirin," the trademark might be abolished.

When I first started working at a newspaper, editors would occasionally get letters from companies saying that a trademark had been used as a generic item. The Associated Press Stylebook would remind editors to change "Dumpster" to "trash bin," "Ping-Pong" to "table tennis" and "Jet Ski" to "recreational watercraft."

Since then, AP style has changed a couple of rules. It says "dumpster" is OK to use as a common noun rather than a proper noun. It says it's OK to use "pingpong," but the trademark is "Ping-Pong." But, as awkward as "recreational watercraft" sounds, AP says it should be used because "Jet Ski" remains a trademark.

Aspirin was once a trademark for the multipurpose tablet invented by the German company Bayer AG. The word was partly from a plant, spirea, from which a key ingredient was extracted. After a while, people began to call all such pills "aspirins," including those made by other companies.

Margarine was created by French chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries. French Emperor Napoleon III offered a prize in 1869 to the person who invented a butter substitute. (For this reason alone, I would never accept a dinner invitation from Napoleon III.) The name came from the Greek root for "pearly." I would have gone with the name "Hippolyte" or possibly "hippolite."

(For quite some time, margarine didn't do well in the United States or Canada. The butter contingent didn't want the competition. In Canada, margarine was illegal from 1886 to 1948. In the United States, it was subject to heavy taxes and banned in some states. But I digress.)

Forms of an escalator have been around since the 1850s. It has been called a revolving staircase, a moving staircase, an endless conveyor and the inclined elevator. Charles Seeberger patented the name "escalator" in 1900, and the Otis Elevator Co. later bought it. By the 1950s, all the contraptions were called "escalators."

Frederick Walton invented linoleum in 1860 as a covering for ship decks. A primary ingredient was linseed oil. It soon became an inexpensive, long-lasting covering for all kinds of floors. Lots of other companies copied the model.

In England, people commonly say they hoover the floors, because the vacuum cleaner brand Hoover became the generic term.

Heroin is another former trademark of Bayer.

Kimberly-Clark Corp. invented "Kleenex" in 1924 to remove cold cream. The "Kleen" came from "cleaning" the face. Actress Jean Harlow and others hawked the tissues in ads.

Within a couple of years, consumers told Kimberly-Clark that they used Kleenexes as disposable handkerchiefs.

People regularly use the brand name "Kleenex" for all brands of tissues. But that trademark lives on. If your friend asks you for a "Kleenex," and you only have a store-brand tissue, be honest with her. Tell her it's just a tissue.

Thanks to the readers who asked me about trademarks recently. I had fun with this subject.


Here are a few homophone word pairs to help you use the correct spelling.

• Fazed (meaning confused) and phased (meaning having stages)

• Flour (the stuff you cook with) and flower (the pretty plant)

• Fiance and fiancee (the one with two e's is the female)

• Grisly (something horrible) and grizzly (a kind of bear)

• Illicit (unlawful) and elicit (to bring out)

• Miner (a person who works in a mine) and minor (a less significant thing or a person who is under age)

• Principal (the main thing or the head of a school) and principle (a belief)

• Reek (to have an unpleasant odor) and wreak (to inflict)

• Shear (to cut something) and sheer (something transparent)

• Trouper (someone in an acting troupe or someone who withstands an ordeal) and trooper (an officer)

Sources: International Trademark Association, National Institutes of Health, The Idea Finder, Today I Found Out, ThoughtCo., TV Tropes, United States Patent and Trademark Office, Merriam-Webster, American Heritage Dictionary

ActiveStyle on 09/24/2018

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