Ngrams of the Day: The Intellectual-Property Commons, Into the Dumpster®

Not long ago, I found myself exchanging notes with a copy editor about whether the chunks of white polystyrene foam gathered by Chinese scrap collectors could be called “styrofoam” or not. The word “Styrofoam®,” cap R, is a registered trademark of Dow Chemical; Wikipedia, as of this writing, notes that lowercase ” styrofoam is often incorrectly used as a generic term for expanded polystyrene foam, such as disposable coffee cups, coolers, or cushioning material in packaging.”

“Incorrectly”? A styrofoam cup is a styrofoam cup . There’s more styrofoam in this world than Dow’s trademark lawyers can cover. Or is there?

Blue is “Styrofoam”; red is “styrofoam.” (The Y axis goes from 0 to .00007 percent of the Google corpus.) Some of the blue no doubt captures not trademark-claim compliance but generic uses of the term that were capitalized at the beginning of a sentence.

So much for correctness. Even in books, which are more formal and scrupulous about usage, “Styrofoam” had no particular claim to priority over “styrofoam.” For decades after people began using the resiliant white foam, the lowercase version was perfectly valid. The preference for the capital S came in after the fact, presumably as a result of Dow’s lawyering.

Here’s another trademark-industry shibboleth:

Blue is “Dumpster”; red is “dumpster.” (The Y axis goes from 0 to .00006 percent of the corpus.) This one is even clearer: historically, “Dumpster” is wrong. Generic small-d “dumpster” got into the language sooner.

Trademark holders have strong incentive to try to subdue and possess the language. No company wants to see its brand-name invention go the way of ”


” (or its Bayer stablemate, ”


“), reduced to generic, lowercase community property. If MInolta could make a “xerox machine,” where would that leave Xerox?

Blue is “Xerox”; red is “xerox”; green is “photocopy.” (The Y axis goes from 0 to .0003 percent of the corpus.) Though Xerox is a canonical example of a company that successfully fought off the threat of generic usage, the book data suggest the proper-name version was never much at risk. And the Xerox lawyers were thoughtful enough to promote a usable alternative. It’s not much of a burden to”photocopy” (or “copy”) a document—simpler than getting an “expandable polystyrene foam” cooler for a picnic, for sure.

But not every claim is so reasonable. The

Merriam-Webster dictionary

available in one newsroom where I worked—used by the copy desk as an authority on name-capitalization questions—informed me that a lightweight, weatherproof jacket was a “Windbreaker” (and then only if it had been made by the correct manufacturer). This seemed absurd when I first read it, and the Google data affirm the absurdity.

Blue is “Windbreaker”; red is “windbreaker.” (The Y axis goes from 0 to .00003 percent of the corpus.) Pace Merriam-Webster, not even the lawyers can put capital-W Windbreaker over on the language. To the small-D dumpster it goes.