Did you know that all of these words are trademarks?
One of our listeners was reading an article in “The Atlantic” about the history of the film and camera company Kodak. He was surprised to find that “Kodaking” was once used as verb, meaning to take photographs. That got us thinking about other trademarked names that have been used so often, for so long, they’ve practically become generic.
Let’s talk about some. We’ll start our journey in the pharmacy aisle.
Band-Aids, ChapStick, and Vaseline
First of all, we have Band-Aids. That’s spelled with a capital B and capital A, with a hyphen between the two words. “Band-Aid” is Johnson & Johnson’s trademark for those sticky things you put on a cut. The name is so embedded in our vocabulary that it’s hard to describe a Band-Aid without using that name!
But give Johnson & Johnson credit. Back in 1920, they were the first to put adhesive tape and gauze together in one product. Before that, people would put a hunk of cotton on a wound, wrap a piece of cloth around it, and tie it off. Not very convenient!
We also have ChapStick and Vaseline. ChapStick is owned by GlaxoSmithKline; Vaseline, by Unilever. If you wonder why these terms seem so generic, it’s because they’ve been around since the late 1800s! ChapStick was invented by a Virginia pharmacist in the 1890s; Vaseline, by a New York chemist in 1870. So we’ve been talking about these trademarks for about 130 years!
Today, these terms seem so universal that we barely realize they are actually trademarks for lip balm and petroleum jelly, respectively. Just like Band-Aids are a brand of adhesive bandages, Q-tips are a type of cotton swab, and Kleenex is a type of tissue.
Sharpies, Scotch Tape, and X-ACTO Knives
Jumping over to the stationery aisle, let’s pick up a Sharpie, some Scotch tape, and an X-ACTO knife. Or rather, a permanent marker, some clear tape, and a utility knife.
We were surprised to learn that “Scotch tape” is a trademark. Apparently, back in 1930, an engineer at 3M invented the stuff. His idea was to create a moisture-proof seal for the cellophane food packaging starting to appear in stores. It also offered a way for folks to make simple repairs at home — particularly important because this invention coincided with the advent of the Depression era in the United States.
In fact, the tape may have been called “Scotch” because at the time, the word was slang for being thrifty. It was an allusion to the supposedly stingy people of Scotland. True or not, even today Scotch tape is often proudly packaged in a Tartan design, the pattern traditionally worn by Scottish Highlanders.
By the way, two quick notes on X-ACTO knives: First, the name is set in all caps. Second, X-ACTO knives began their existence in 1917 as surgical scalpels. That didn’t change until 1930, when a designer at the X-ACTO company needed to crop some ads and grabbed a nearby scalpel. The idea was born to also sell utility knives, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Jell-O, Crockpot, Tupperware, Styrofoam, and Popsicle
Let’s jump quickly to the kitchen aisle and point out a few words that you might think are generic, but are really trademarks.
Jell-O — that’s “J-e-l-l, hyphen, capital O — is Kraft’s trademarked version of a gelatin dessert. “Crockpot” is a brand of slow cookers, Tupperware, a brand of plastic containers, and Thermos is a type of container that keeps hot food hot and cold food cold.
And “Popsicle,” believe it or not, is not a generic term. It’s a brand owned by Unilever. Call them “frozen treats” if you want to speak generically.
How to Treat Trademarked Names in Your Writing
Now let’s talk about the big question that writers and editors want to know: how should we handle these words in our writing? Here are a few rules to follow.
First rule: If you’re writing about a specific brand—Post-it Notes, for example—treat the word exactly how the brand does. In this case, use a capital P, a little I, and a capital N, and put a hyphen between the two words.
The exception to this rule is when a brand starts with a lowercase letter—like iPhone—and falls at the start of a sentence. If you follow the AP Stylebook, you would capitalize the I, as in “IPhones are shiny.” If you follow the Chicago Manual of Style, you can leave the I lowercase, as in “iPhones are shiny.” Chicago’s reasoning is that the capital P does the work of signifying that a new sentence is starting.
Chicago does draw the line when the entire name of the product is lowercased, as with computer chip maker “intel.” In that case, Chicago insists that the I be capitalized, as in “Intel makes computer parts.”
Second rule: Even if you’re writing about a specific product, you don’t have to include its trademark symbol. In other words, don’t add a registered mark after “Lego,” a service mark after “Walmart,” or a trademark after “Nike.”
Companies add these symbols to their packaging to announce to competitors, “Hey, this name belongs to us! Don’t even think about using it!” However, we regular people have no legal requirement to add these symbols when we’re writing about a brand. Simply leave them off.
Third rule: If you’re not writing about a specific brand, try to use a generic term instead. Rather than saying you “jumped into a Jacuzzi,” say you “hopped into a hot tub.” Rather than telling readers to bake mac and cheese “in a Pyrex,” suggest they use an “oven-safe casserole dish.”
The exception to this rule would be if you’re writing fiction or narrative non-fiction and want to use a specific brand name for effect. You might want your detective to sip on “Dr. Brown's Root Beer,” for example, instead of just “a soda.” Or wear a pair of “Jimmy Choos” instead of just “high heels.”
Long story short, many words we consider generic nouns are actually trademarked names. If you don’t believe me, print out this article, wad it up, and throw it in a Dumpster.
Yes, you guessed it. “Dumpster” is a trademarked word too.
AP Stylebook Online, Company names (available by subscription), accessed October 8, 2021.
DeMelo, June. How One Woman’s Cooking Mishaps Sparked the Creation of BAND-AID® Brand Adhesive Bandages. Johnson & Johnson website, December 26, 2018, accessed October 8, 2021.
Green, Jonathan. Scotch, Green’s Dictionary of Slang Online (available by subscription), accessed October 8, 2021.
Harrell, Lauren and Stacy Conradt. 50 Words You Might Not Know Are Trademarked. Mental Floss website, December 25, 2019, accessed October 8, 2021.
Scotch Brand website, About us, accessed October 8, 2021.
Stamp, Jimmy. For 80 Years, X-Acto Has Been on the Cutting Edge of Edge Cutting. Smithsonian Magazine, March 11, 2014, accessed October 8, 2021.
The Chicago Manual of Style Online, Section 8.153: Trademarks (available by subscription), accessed October 8, 2021.
The History of Vaseline. Unilever website, accessed October 8, 2021.
When Was ChapStick® Invented? The History of ChapStick.® ChapStick website, accessed October 8, 2021.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.