The Otis Elevator Company lost its hold over the trademark 'escalator'.

The Otis Elevator Company lost its hold over the trademark ‘escalator’. Photo copyright Malcolm Pemberton 2012.

Next time you do the hoovering, remember that the most famous maker of ‘hoovers’ or vacuum cleaners, was Hoover. So famous was this connection that Hoover became a generic trademark, even to the extent of losing its capital ‘H’. British people often use ‘Stanley knife‘ to refer to any brand of tough, carpet-cutting utility knife, a ‘Yale lock‘ to refer to any make of barrel lock (as distinct from a mortice lock), a ‘Phillips screwdriver‘ when they mean any cross-head driver,  ‘Thermos flask‘ for any flask that keeps your drinks warm, ‘Kleenex‘ for tissues and ‘Biro’ or ‘Bic‘ for ballpoint pen.

If I want to make a big hole in a concrete wall, I’ll go and rent a ‘Kango hammer’ and probably not care who actually manufactured it. If I want a handy resealable bag I’ll go shopping for a ‘Ziploc bag’, but be looking for the bag, not the name. If I can’t find such a bag, I’ll buy some ‘Sellotape‘ instead. Our American cousins will probably get some ‘Scotch tape‘, refer to polystyrene foam as ‘Styrofoam’, mix their cakes with a ‘Kenwood’, cover that cut with a ‘Band-Aid‘ etc. If this is all enough to give you a headache, perhaps you’ll want to reach for the ‘aspirin’ (which is legally a generic drug now). If it’s raining, you might reach for your mackintosh (or macintosh, mac or mack – and I’m not talking about computers), when you mean raincoat. In Britain we frequently refer to any wheeled digger or excavator as a JCB, and any tracked bulldozer as a Caterpillar tractor.

Some of this behaviour is being contested in the courts right now, as we ‘Google‘ for information using whatever search engine, and ‘Photoshop’ that image with any photo-editing software we find at hand. Of course, it is usually the first or most famous brand that people chose to use, and often it must seem like great advertising, but the owners of these brands do not want to lose their hold over the trademarks, because it really can happen if misuse goes uncorrected.

I’d love to hear more of these generic trademarks, particularly from the US and Canada, as they tend to belong to the country where the brand is most prominent.

Many thanks to Wikipedia for masses of background for this article, and I must admit I do ‘Wiki’ things when I’m looking for facts, but then I always use Wikipedia.