Aspirin.  Cellophane.  Butterscotch.  Escalator.  Yo-Yo.  Heroin.

Don’t worry, I haven’t reverted into bizarre free-word-association mode.  This is a list of words which once were the subject of someone’s exclusive ownership, which have since lost their trademark protection through a process commonly referred to as “genericide.”

The basic idea here is this: a word only functions as a trademark to the extent that it is distinctive of someone’s goods or services.  Put differently, a good trademark will make consumers think of a particular type of product or a specific company that provides goods/services.

As Tom Galvani notes, in a recent post pondering the trademark implications of online search provider DEX‘s marketing activities, “Typically, use of a trademark as anything other than an adjective weakens the rights in that mark.  Supplanting the mark for a noun or a verb in a sentence changes the mark’s meaning and its understanding.”

I’m a grammar nut (no kidding– in college, I participated in an event called Grammar Smackdown!), so naturally, I find Tom’s shorthand formula appealing.  But, as Tom and others (see Evan Brown’s thoughts on Google’s entry into the Merriam-Webster dictionary) note, there’s more at play here.  

There is no doubt that businesses who invite consumers to use a trademark as a verb or a noun are running a risk of genericide.  So the question then becomes: (a) how great is this risk; and (b) in light of the marketing opportunities (word of mouth, “buzz” associated with your service, e.g.) is it worth taking this risk nonetheless.

Steve Baird over at DuetsBlog makes a key observation— it’s all about what consumers think:

To be sure, far more than a single act of verbing a trademark or brand must occur before a majority of the relevant consuming public no longer sees the claimed trademark or brand as identifying and distinguishing certain products or services as coming from a single source. Given this, there must be an opportunity to engage in some thoughtful and creative level of brandverbing without committing trademark suicide, right?

Only time will tell which of today’s popular brands will go the way of Escalator and company.  Brand owners have a lot to consider in the meantime, and they want more information, they can always just Google it.