January 8th, 2008

language, voyage

Verbing Nouns Freaks Lawyers

Probably as a result of the Stephen Pinker book I'm reading, it occurred to me in the middle of a meeting yesterday that certain aspects of trademark law are fighting a battle with the way human minds conceive of language.*

In this meeting, we kept running up against what I think of as the Xerox(TM) problem. You know how Xerox doesn't want you to say things like, "I xeroxed the report"? Because if Xerox becomes a generic, they lose their trademark, and verbs, I suppose, are sort of inherently generic, being more abstract entities than nouns. So technical writers for Xerox probably end up saying things like "photocopied with a Xerox(TM) copier" rather than "xeroxed".

I've got a really cool trademarked feature that I write about, and I always have to use constructions like "photocopied with a Xerox copier". Such constructions are clunky. They automatically build an extra prepositional phrase into your sentence, which makes things really tricky if you have additional modifiers you need to include. (Imagine things like "the pages photocopied with a Xerox copier that belong to Mike...") The truth of the matter is: there's no one in the world who has more interest in protecting our trademarked noun than we do, and yet, in all unofficial written and spoken communication, in anything that doesn't go in front of a customer, we turn that noun into a verb, because it's just more effective communication.

It's a marvel to me that any verbable noun stays trademarked for any length of time at all.

* This is probably far from the only instance in which intellectual property law conflicts with fundamental aspects of human nature, but that's a whole 'nother post.