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When Trademarks And Dictionaries Clash

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When Trademarks And Dictionaries Clash

It’s no wonder that dictionary-makers have trouble with trademarks. There are legal repercussions as well as conflicting loyalties over what actually constitutes a word.

Dictionary-makers want to respect trademark ownership, yet their job is to record words and their usage as accurately as possibly. Some dictionaries, like the jumbo Oxford English Dictionary or its baby sister, the Concise Oxford Dictionary, have skirted the problem by banning proper nouns altogether, whether they be the names of persons, places, or branded products.

Dictionary makers often ask: If you start adding proper nouns to the dictionary word list, where do you stop? Why include entries for Aqua-Lung and Xerox, as Encarta College Dictionary does, but not Kodak? Should the decision be based on social importance or frequency of use?

We would argue that proper nouns in general and brand names in particular are words, and there’s no reason in principle why they should not legitimately be part of the overall word stock. Moreover, dictionary-users want them, which is why they’re included in many dictionaries around the globe.

In the United States, trademarks figure in college dictionaries such as Webster’s New World and the top-selling Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate. The former Random House Unabridged Dictionary entered nearly 600 brand names, literally from A to Z – from A&E Television, the arts and entertainment cable TV channel, to Zovirax, a drug used in treating herpes.

Typically, dictionaries compromise between legal and lexicographical claims by including both the trademarked (capitalized) and generic (uncapitalized) forms, as in the cases of “hoover” (verb), and Hoover (the trademarked product).

Then there are words such as “magnum” and “carousel” which may have several interpretations, only one of which (Magnum, Carousel) is the trademark. You can look that one up under another word: “confusing.”

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4 Comments

Stuart Foster on June 22nd, 2009 said

Interesting…should a brand dictionary be created then as a subsection of the Oxford English Dictionary? Would it live online?

Bill Drissel on June 22nd, 2009 said

If I were a lexicographer, my approach would be simple: As soon as I had evidence that people understood phrases like, “xerox that for me” or “put that in the frigidaire”, I’d make it a headword in my dictionary.

Bill Drissel

Steve Baird on June 28th, 2009 said

Very interesting read.

Dictionary entries can be quite important to trademark owners and their lawyers, especially those with brands that are included in them.

It used to be the automatic death knell to trademark ownership of a brand (read: genericide) to have a brand appear in the dictionary, but now the focus appears to be more flexible to examine, consider, and influence the entry, if possible, especially with the ever-popular trend of “verbing” trademarks (i.e., google as a verb): http://www.duetsblog.com/2009/06/articles/just-verb-it-part-ii-a-legal-perspective-on-using-brands-as-verbs/

Seán Mac Cann on February 12th, 2010 said

Bill, you’d soon find yourself receiving letters before action from lawyers representing the holders of those brands (e.g., RollerBlade, Burberry etc) if you arbitrarily decided to deem them everyday words at a point when the brand still hadn’t become a generic word. Brands have massive value in company valuation; and I bet you’d soon be on the receiving end of a letter from Coca Cola if you decided to define “coke” as “any soft drink”.

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