Word Play: Genericized brand names

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, November 22nd. This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. George Grant is here now for our November installment of Word Play.

Hi George!

GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTATOR: Is it a blessing or a curse when a company’s product so completely defines an industry that its brand name becomes a generic term? Ask Xerox or Kleenex or Jacuzzi. Any number of products we use every day—from Zippers to Escalators and from Band-Aids to Thermos bottles—are genericized trademarks.

You might have been able to guess that ChapStick, Post-It Notes, Frisbees, Dust Busters, and Scotch Tape were brand names.  But, what about Roller Blades, TV Dinners, Jet-Skis, Bubble Wrap, and Yo-Yos? Or, what about Ziploc Bags, Popsicles, Kitty Litter, Onesies, or Crock Pots? Everyone of them is a genericized brand name.

Did you know that the large mobile trash bins we typically call “Dumpsters” were the creation of the Dempster Brothers of Knoxville, Tennessee? The Dempsters ran a sanitation business and wanted to create commercial bins that could be mechanically emptied into the back of their trucks. In 1936 they named their clever invention the “Dumpster,” a compounded portmanteau from the word “dump” and their last name.

Did you know that Laundromats were invented by Harry Greenwald just after World War Two in Brooklyn, New York? He was inspired by a neighborhood restaurant where he regularly had lunch. Called “The Automat,” the diner featured food conveniently served vending-machine-style, behind coin-operated glass doors. 

Greenwald took the idea to Westinghouse—demonstrating how the same technology could be applied to their washing machines. Shortly thereafter, Greenwald and Westinghouse opened their first trademarked Laundromat. 

In 1931, Rolla Harger, a professor at Indiana University, invented a device to test the sobriety of erratic drivers—originally dubbed the Drunk-O-Meter. But five years later when Harger patented the device for the university, he renamed it the Breathalyzer.

Tupperware got its name from its creator, Earle Silas Tupper. The Zamboni is an ice resurfacer, a familiar sight to NHL fans, named for its inventor, Frank Zamboni. Taser is a trademarked acronym for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle. Similarly fascinating stories can be told about Ping-Pong, Q-Tips, Velcro, Weed Eaters, Wite-Out, X-acto Knives, Novacain, Plexiglas, Styrofoam, and Formica. Even Windbreaker is a trademarked word for jackets made by the Celebration Trading Company.

Who knew our vocabulary was so larded with genericized terms? But, don’t just take my word for it—you can Google it.

For WORLD Radio, I’m George Grant.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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