Monday, May 16, 2016

Semantic Change - Broadening Part 1 - Brand Names

Semantics! Yay!

Oh, come on! It isn't that bad... Here's a comic strip to get you in the mood.

Semantic change (also called shift in meaning) is a process in which a word changes its meaning over time. It actually happens a lot more than you'd expect! There are many words which we happily toss around in our everyday conversations which started out with a completely different meaning. Let's have a look at a few words that underwent a form of semantic change called broadening.

Also called widening or generalization, the process of broadening a word's semantics means that it takes on a more general sense.

Perhaps the most obvious use of broadening is related to brand names. Over the years, we've grown accustomed to using a specific brand name to refer to a general idea or item. Can you find all the brand names here?

When Julie finished her shift at the mall, she had a massive headache and really needed an aspirin. As she got on the escalator, she remembered she had some in her backpack. She checked all the pockets--even the ones shut with Velcro--but the only things she could find were some Kleenex, ChapStick and Band-Aids.

Easy, right? The brand names are capitalized: Velcro (registered name for "hook-and-loop fastener"), Kleenex (registered name for "facial tissue" or "handkerchief"), Band-Aid (registered name for "adhesive bandage") and ChapStick (registered name for "lip balm." Note the capitalized "s" in the middle).

That looks weird, doesn't it? Especially "ChapStick"! I'm so accustomed to using it as a generic name that seeing it capitalized is a bit unnerving. But have a glimpse at the official website and, yup, it's a registered trademark.

However, there are two more trademarked names in that segment: aspirin and escalator. But why aren't they capitalized?

Well, it turns out that these words lost their trademark status.

Let's begin with the easy one:

The word "escalator" was trademarked by Otis Elevator Co. in 1900, but in the 1950 case Haughton Elevator Co. v. Seeberger, the company lost its trademark rights because the court declared it had allowed the word to become generic, meaning nothing more than "a moving staircase." Thus, the company lost its trademark and "escalator" officially became part of the public domain.

The word "aspirin" was trademarked by the well-known German pharmaceutical Bayer in the year 1899. However, at the end of World War One, many of the company's assets and trademarks were confiscated and other companies jumped at the opportunity to use the highly acclaimed name. Bayer, however, still holds trademark in over eighty countries, including Germany, Canada and Mexico.

By the way, did you know that Bayer had also trademarked "heroin"? The name of the drug is actually diacetylmorphine. However, Bayer created its brand name Heroin from the Greek word "hero" in order to associate "heroic" traits to the medicine. As you might have guessed, the company also eventually lost trademark rights over this word.

These last two examples (three if we count "heroin") of semantic broadening are also clear examples of a phenomenon called brand genericide--when a brand name becomes a common name. Otis Elevator Co. failed to properly protect its trademark over the word "escalator", and Bayer pretty much had its trademark stripped from "aspirin" after WWI.

Other companies are currently at risk of losing their trademark this way, for example "Google" with regards to the common phrase "let's google this", meaning "let's look this up on the internet."

Brand name broadening has happened many times, and probably will continue to happen throughout the decades. It's a form of dying of success: the trademarked name becomes part of your day-to-day until you disassociate it from its source (the company) and use the name solely to refer to the item. Once we've reached this point of semantic broadening or generalization, court claims can be put forward to declare the word public domain--and other companies can jump at the opportunity to use a well-known word.

So, it turns out semantic change isn't something that only affects us nerds! The evolution of language has deep and long-lasting effects on society, and phenomena such as shifts in meaning have, as we've just seen, even been dealt with in court cases.

In my next post I'll give you some examples of broadening which affected regular words we use every day.


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