Trademarks are copyrighted names of companies, products, and services. Many of them are
invented words, but all are meant to attract attention. Some companies hire naming labs to help
them come up with names. Read this recent article by Rebecca Jennings, “How brands get their
names, explained by a professional namer,” for an introduction to the topic (note: this is
required reading for this assignment): https://www.vox.com/the-
Observe the examples of Xerox and Kleenex. Occasionally, a product name is so wildly
successful that everyone begins using it a lot as a generic noun or verb. Searching online is often
called googling even if the search engine you use isn’t actually Google. Photocopying may be
referred to as xeroxing even if the equipment was made by (e.g.) Hewlett-Packard rather than
by Xerox. Every small piece of adhesive with a gauze pad in the middle gets called a Band-Aid,
even though this is a trademark. The same is true of gelatinous desserts, often all referred to as
Jell-O, and facial tissues, which are often called Kleenex.
This process – called trademark genericization – is not new. For instance, what we now call
fiberglass used to be an American trademark (OED, “Fibreglass”). Metcalf (2002:80) lists a
number of additional examples of earlier genericized trademarks, including granola, zipper,
both elevator and escalator, aspirin, ping-pong, and cellophane. Companies generally dislike it
when this happens, and they may go so far as to write letters of complaint to dictionaries
Your task: You are a freelance journalist with vox.com, and you have been asked to write a
follow-up article to the Jennings piece referenced above. This follow-up article should deepen
the vox.com reader’s understanding of the complexity of trademark genericization by bringing
two scholarly perspectives into the discussion: Bernard Cova and Shawn M. Clankie, from the
articles posted to Quercus (and referenced below).
Write a 2-3 page essay in the style of the vox.com article (so, targeting a vox.com audience),
double-spaced (see formatting guidelines below) about trademark genericization. Imagine that
the readers of the original article asked a couple of important questions in the comments section,
and the editor of Vox.com wants you to follow up on those questions by looking into
scholarship on the topic. Your article needs to address at least two of the following questions
asked by (hypothetical) vox.com readers:
1. All trademarks are meant to be memorable, but what makes a trademark particularly
likely to become a generic term?
2. What kinds of linguistic strategies help make brand names catchy and informative?
3. Why do companies resent it when their brand names are so effective that they become
In order to address your two selected questions, you need to bring Cova and Clankie
(references provided below; articles are posted on Quercus) into the conversation, referencing
their work directly through paraphrase, quotation, and/or summary statements. Your work
here will be to translate their academic work into language accessible to a popular audience.
The goal here is not to mention everything you read in their articles – don’t worry about
understanding every word! – but to find and reference a couple of ideas you think are
particularly important in terms of answering the above questions. Your assignment should
emphasize your own voice and ideas; Cova and Clankie are there to provide you with support,
but you should be doing most of the talking. If you introduce terminology these authors use,
you should paraphrase a definition to make sure that your Vox readers understand.
Note: If you have experience with trademark genericization in languages other than English,
you are encouraged to include that experience in your article.
Clankie, Shawn M. (2000). “Genericization: A Theory of Semantic Broadening in the
Marketplace.” Northern Review 28: 1 – 11.
Cova, Bernard (2014). “Re-branding brand genericide.” Business Horizons 57, no. 3: 357 – 69.
Metcalf, Allan (2002). Predicting new words. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Your assignment should be 2-3 pages in length (but you can add a fourth page for the
bibliography if you need to) with the text double-spaced (or 1.5 spaced) in an ordinary 12-point
font and with 1” margins. You must submit your paper via Quercus by the beginning of the
lecture (6:10 PM Toronto time) on Monday, November 11.
Buying essays from anyone else is not permitted. Do not share your work with any of your
classmates, or accept any offers to look at classmates’ or anyone else’s attempts at the problem.
You can always send me an email and/or set up an appointment and/or visit my office hours if
you are having problems – that’s my job!
We recommend building on ideas from external sources such as the Oxford English Dictionary,
the textbook, and the lecture slides. If use these or any other sources, you must either:
a) paraphrase the idea (in your own words), put in a citation in a bracket immediately
afterwards, and put the source in a references list at the end; or:
b) use the exact words from the source inside quotation marks, put in a citation in a
bracket immediately afterwards, and put the source in a references list at the end.
A citation of the lecture slides can simply look like “(Lecture 1)” and citing the textbook as
“Denning et al. 2007:16)”, where the number after the : is the page number, is also enough.
You can use any kind of established style/formatting for citations and references (most
linguistics journals have their own conventions!), as long as you are consistent and have
provided all the details a reader needs to look up the source. Possible entries for references list:
Denning, Keith, Brett Kessler, and William R. Leben (2007). English Vocabulary Elements (2nd
edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lecture 1. LIN203: English Words (instructor: Marisa Brook). University of Toronto, St.
George campus. September 9, 2019.
NOTE: the suggested word-counts are just guidelines for the amount of writing expected: you
do not need to declare the number of words you wrote, or worry about deleting a few if your
total is 210 rather than 200.
NOTE: again, you are not permitted to use the exact wording from this assignment. If you
must quote it, use quotation marks and also put in both a citation and a reference to it.
Tips for Successful Papers
Not sure how to get this assignment started? Try visiting a store (physical or online) and find
the same product marketed by different companies, or the brand-name and store-brand/no-
name version of the same product. You can explore labels in any language, but if you use
examples in a language other than English, you should transcribe them into the Latin alphabet
and translate them into English. Ask yourself the following questions:
1. Are they labeled the same way? If you looked at more than two companies’ labels, how
much variation is there?
2. What’s the difference between the labels? Which one do you find catchier and why?
3. Would it be weird or normal to call the store-brand version of the product by what is on
the official label?
4. Would it be weird or normal to call the store-brand version of the product by the name
of the brand-name equivalent?
5. Would it be weird or normal to call the brand name version of the product by what is on
the official label?
6. Would it be weird or normal to call the brand name version of the product by what is on
the store brand product label?
7. After looking at several pairs of labels, do you find any patterns or tendencies?
8. If you asked someone to buy you what is on one label, and they came back with the
other product, would you feel like they had followed your instructions?
Successful papers will keep the purpose and audience of this assignment in mind while
writing. Remember that you are writing a follow-up article to the Vox.com piece by Rebecca
Jennings referenced above. Think about what Jennings’ main point was in that article, and
how she made that point. How can you build on or extend Jennings’ article in order to
enhance your reader’s understanding of trademark genericization? Take a look at other
Vox.com pieces to get a sense of appropriate tone (https://www.vox.com/the-goods).
Successful papers will not use everything from the source materials; successful papers will
focus on a few key claims or ideas from the source materials, and present them to the
Vox.com reader in language suitable for that audience.
Successful papers will focus on an element/elements of trademark genericization that are of
genuine interest to the writer. As you consider the Jennings’ piece and the two scholarly
articles, keep track of the ideas that stick out to you. What surprised you? What seemed
weird to you? What question would you want to ask Jennings, for example, and how would
you answer that question? Writing about something that’s genuinely interesting to you –
something you might want to talk to a friend about over dinner, for example – will make
your reader more interested in your topic, too.