We all know that words and language can be used to deceive and manipulate as well as to convey and to inform. In George Orwell’s novel 1984, the state creates a whole new vocabulary—Newspeak—to ensure that citizens cannot think for themselves.
While his chilling description of an all-powerful state that controls citizens’ very thoughts by controlling their language has not literally come to pass, it was nonetheless prophetic in many ways. For example, the deceptive and euphemistic language used by the government and media to describe wars (which, not incidentally, are never called “wars” anymore) approaches Newspeak. Civilian casualities are now “collateral damage,” while an occupying army is now a “peacekeeping force.”
Sinister as this sort of propaganda is, there is another trend which may prove even more detrimental to our ability to freely use language. I am referring to the widespread copyrighting and trademarking of words and expressions, which amounts to the virtual ownership of words by individuals and corporations. Trademarks and copyrights are legal means to protect original names, ideas and works of art.
There is also, however, a contemporary social disease that might be called TM-mania, an obsessive concern with preserving the exclusive rights to commonly used words and the most casual turns of phrase. Of course, the people who reflexively place the letters ™ after every second or third thing they speak or write believe that they are protecting profound and unique utterances which their envious peers or business competitors would seize from them if given the chance. Thus, we must increasingly endure the ubiquitous ™ following the most banal advertising slogans.
The consequences of this phenomenon range from amusing to disturbing. In the former category we can place words, names and phrases that almost certainly would never be copied whether protected by copyright or not. Only the egotistical mind of the copywriter could conceive of anyone appropriating something like “Super Squish-O-Matic: the Ultimate Mixing Machine“ or “Neutron Bomb Roach Spray with Extra Killing Power.” These are (to the best of my knowledge) imaginary examples, but similar enough to ones we encounter daily. It is never enough to simply trademark the brand name; the accompanying description of the product must be protected as well.
Where all this starts to get disturbing is when it encroaches on our freedom to use, not silly slogans, but commonly used words and phrases. Consider the implications of protecting such phrases as: “Brand X Motor Oil—Simply The Best.” Brand X has, for all time, seized the right to call itself the best motor oil. Or, to take an actual example I recently noticed, Haagen Dazs ice cream has trademarked the slogan “It’s Just Perfect.” What we have here is a corporation gaining ownership of words that are not even true.
Most advertising slogans are neither true nor false, but unprovable assertions. After all, whether we are talking about motor oil, ice cream or anything else, “best” depends on who is judging and what standard they are using. Ironically, ™ after a phrase, despite the aura of legalese it adds to words, is actually a kind of guarantee that the statement is not true in any verifiable sense. Factual statements, such as “each cookie contains 8.5 chocolate chips” cannot be protected because there is nothing to prevent a competitor from making the same statement if it describes their product as well.
Furthermore, facts change. Ford cannot for all time claim to build the world’s largest sport utility vehicle, because next year Dodge might build a bigger one. This is why nonfactual but strongly connotative words like “best” and “perfect” so often appear in advertising slogans—and are so often protected.
There is certainly a legitimate need for copyrighting and trademarking. If Company A starts calling its product by a name already being used by Company B, there is a clearcut violation involved; it would also be confusing. However, the current trend of trademarking trivial descriptions of products and services is itself a violation—of free speech. People and corporations who do this are hoarders of words. Fearing competition, or maybe having an inflated opinion of their phrases, they want to forever deprive others of the right to use them.
Examples of TM-mania can be found in the issues of many writers’ magazines, where corporations routinely place ads warning writers not to use brand names such as Kleenex™, Xerox™ and Rollerblade™ as generic words. Note that we are not talking here about the right of another company to call their copy machine a Xerox. This would obviously lead to confusion and infringe on the rights of the original Xerox. They are concerned about writers using these words in ordinary sentences. Instead of being glad their product has been so successful that it has become a generic term, they react with the paranoia typical to large institutions and worry that people will forget that kleenex is not just any tissue, but KLEENEX, a unique brand name.
It’s a good thing that this mentality was not around a hundred years ago, or the number of nouns at our disposal would be severely limited. We are getting so accustomed to this practice that it may not seem out of line, but imagine if the first producers of automobiles, jeans, televisions and computers all trademarked these words. We would have to endure the capitalization of (or a ™ after) these and countless other everyday words.
This practice has also become ubiquitous in the realms of self-improvement, alternative healing and popular psychology. It is no longer sufficient to call oneself a mere practitioner of something as familiar as psychotherapy, hypnosis or massage therapy. It seems that everyone today has to claim ownership of a unique (and of course trademarked) system. Browse through the catalog of a center that specializes in healing or New Age workshops and count the ™ symbols. Once again, I am concerned not with the protection of truly original names and phrases, but of the appropriation of familiar ones.
If trademarking had been possible in ancient times, the Greeks could have trademarked, among others, “logic,” “psychology” and “metaphysics.” What would life be like today if the first cave painters had started a corporation and trademarked the word “art?” As ludicrous as this sounds, this mentality is common today. Since writing the first draft of this article, I came across a book in the New Age/Self-Help section of a bookstore that was promoting a self improvement system called “Philosophy”—with a ™ after it. Modern self-help gurus are rushing to trademark words that have been in use for thousands of years. Socrates would have been outraged at such hubris!
The implications of this go beyond linguistics and involve the way we are able to think about various disciplines and systems of thought. To paraphrase Orwell, those who control language control the way we think. When someone gains ownership of a previously generic word or phrase, they are attempting to manipulate our thinking (even if they only have profits in mind). We are no longer allowed to enjoy an open-ended and cosmopolitan sense of the word—we must now forever associate it with Brand X or System Y. These are intellectual chains.
This practice reflects a widespread puerile individualism; many people feel the need to portray an image, not only of quality and originality, but of uniqueness. In the vast majority of cases, this uniqueness is limited entirely to the name, which is perhaps why so much emphasis is placed there. What matters most today are superficial trappings like brand names and the advertising associated with them. Content—the idea or object to which the name refers—becomes secondary, if not irrelevant.
At a deeper level, the widespread trademarking of words points to the breakdown of language as a means of spontaneous communication. It is part of the larger trend of attempting to regulate and formalize every aspect of life. In the past there was at least as much hype, exaggeration and questionable information around as today. Passing through a bazaar, medicine show, carnival or revival meeting, or receiving a visit from a travelling salesman all demanded a healthy dose of skepticism.
Yet alongside the persuasion and manipulation, such informal exchanges contained an element of spontaneity and playfulness that is rapidly fading from today’s marketplace. When you bargained with a Middle Eastern merchant, it was understood that his initial asking price was way too high and that he was overstating the quality of the merchandise. Today’s merchants exaggerate just as much; the difference is, they want their prevarications protected by official decree.
Just as in the physical world public spaces are becoming rare, so even words are becoming privatized and cut off from the wider world. As people are increasingly putting gates around their suburban communities to keep out strangers, corporations are protecting “their” words with trademarks so no one else can profit from them, or even use them without permission. Language is becoming, instead of a tool for communication and understanding, one of control and deception.
Language, of course, has always been used for these purposes by means such as propaganda and censorship. Excessive trademarking, however, is a more subtle form of thought control. It allows words to become the exclusive property of special interests. Words are the products of our minds, possibly even our souls; as much as possible, they should be free.
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