Words at Work by Kathy McIntosh: Capitalize trademarks like 'Band-Aid' and 'Styrofoam'

KATHY McINTOSH, Boise author, speaker and freelance editor. Owner of A Well-Placed Word.June 11, 2013 

Kathy McIntosh

Some things change, others remain steadfast. I generally choose to look forward rather than back, but the Wall Street Journal recently allowed that the word "data" need not be considered plural any longer. "The reporter's data was carefully reviewed and found valid." I prefer AP Stylebook's guidelines, which prescribe the use of data as singular only when it is a collective noun, considered as a unit: "The data is sound," but "the data were carefully collected."

Speaking of carefully collected data, I've found a number of updates of note. The AP Stylebook and the Wall Street Journal recently updated the word for a large metal trash bin from upper to lowercase. Store employees put their trash into dumpsters, no longer into Dumpsters. In researching why the change was made, I found an interesting page on the history of the dumpster, invented and trademarked by the Dempster brothers in 1937. I never found out why the capital came off. Resources stated that it is a genericized trademark. You can Google Dempster brothers, if you wish. AP says Google is always capitalized. If you search my previous articles, you may find I have lowered the case (and my accuracy).

Why then, I thought, hasn't Kleenex lost its capital K? Or Coke its capital C? I believe it is because the trademark owners actively promote the trademark. It is the same for my former employer, Xerox, a company that zealously preserves the capital X and takes umbrage (and legal action) when someone offers "Xeroxes" instead of Xerox copies.

When mentioning a real estate agent who is a member of the National Association of Realtors, use Realtor with a capital R. Otherwise, call the person a real estate agent.

Another surprising - to me - trademark was that of Kitty Litter, a brand of cat litter. Styrofoam is capitalized, as is Plexiglas. However, did you know that plastic foam cups are not made of Styrofoam? I did not.

I was traveling recently and passed a sign for a "Laundermat," an interesting variation on the term laundromat, once a trademark of the Westinghouse Electric Corp. for its automated self-service laundries. Known in the United Kingdom as launderettes, laundromats were also known as washaterias.

The term laundromat was coined in the 1950s by analogy with "automat," an automated self-service restaurant. While laundromats are still seen, I have not seen an automat for years. Capitalize it if you must, but don't call it a "laundry mat" or a "laundrymat."

A few other trademark words of note: Band-Aid is a trademark for a type of adhesive bandage. Ping-Pong is a trademarked name, but one can also play generic pingpong, without a hyphen, but preferably with a paddle.

Running shoes present another issue. The manufacturer's logo for Adidas running shoes is lower-cased, but AP Stylebook capitalizes it, because the trademark lists it with a capital "A" as well as without. Keds aren't a generic for running shoes, but a brand name, capitalized. You may call them sneakers, at the risk of sounding dated, or trainers, at the risk of being mistaken for a Brit.



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