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Lexical properties: trademarks, dictionaries, and the sense of the generic

Bellido, Jose and Pottage, Alain (2019) Lexical properties: trademarks, dictionaries, and the sense of the generic. History of Science, 57 (1). 119 - 139. ISSN 0073-2753

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Identification Number: 10.1177/0073275318766160


The third edition of Webster’s International Dictionary, first published in 1961, represented a novel approach to lexicography. It recorded the English language used in everyday life, incorporating colloquial terms that previous grammarians would have considered unfit for any responsible dictionary. Many were scandalized by the new lexicography. Trademark lawyers were not the most prominent of these critics, but the concerns they expressed are significant because they touched on the core structure of the trademark as a form of property in language. In the course of eavesdropping on everyday usage, Merriam-Webster’s lexicographers picked up on the use of trademarks as common nouns: “thermos” as a generic noun for any vacuum flask, “cellophane” as a term for transparent wrapping, and so on. If Webster’s Third were to be taken as sound evidence of the meaning of words, then the danger was that some of the most familiar marks in the USA would be judged “generic” in the legal sense, and would thereby cease to be proprietary. In this article, we explore the implications of this encounter between law and lexicographic technique.

Item Type: Article
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2018 The Authors
Divisions: Law
Subjects: K Law > K Law (General)
Date Deposited: 18 Apr 2018 13:48
Last Modified: 20 Oct 2021 01:25

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