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A Victory Over Genericide

A September 1959 advertisement for the Xerox 914The New York Times has begun a strange new series titled “Verbatim,” mini-docudramas culled from transcripts of court documents. In its inaugural video, the punch line kicks in when the office worker being relentlessly grilled about the presence of a photocopy machine in his office is finally badgered into admitting that a machine exists from which he extracts copies of documents. What is that machine called? “Xerox,” he answers desperately.

To my students, the scene isn’t all that funny, except for the hamminess of the actors. They think the office worker is either an idiot or a tool—whose assignment is, for whatever reason, not to let slip the word photocopy. But for those of a certain age, the scene brings back a period of word evolution, abetted by a concentrated marketing campaign.

For me, the period goes back to the time of dittos, those sweet-smelling, smudged copies ubiquitous in mid-20th-century classrooms. Contrasted to their purplish text were the shiny, expensive Photostats my father would make at his office when he needed an exact replica of a document. He took me once to see the Photostat machine in operation. It was big, and hot, and the paper it spat out curled slightly, like a wood shaving, and he let me know that I was witnessing progress.

Then Xerox came along. Suddenly, at the office jobs I held in the late 1970s, you could Xerox everything. The cheaper machines still exuded the shiny, slightly grayish paper I remembered from the Photostats, but things evolved quickly. Pretty soon we were Xeroxing onto plain copy paper; we were Xeroxing and collating, Xeroxing and stapling, even Xeroxing and binding. If you wanted a copy of something, you Xeroxed it—just as, today, if you want to look for something on the Internet, you Google it.

The term for what threatened the Xerox Corporation at that point was genericide, the loss of its trademark, a fate that befell dozens of now-common appellations before them, notably zipper and thermos. Not everyone minds their brand’s becoming the go-to term for the product; Adobe doesn’t seem to have done anything about the ubiquitous use of Photoshop, nor has Google attempted to stop runaway Googling, even on Bing. But in the early 21st century, Xerox fought back, begging its customers in hundreds of advertisements not to “use ‘Xerox’ the way you use ‘aspirin.’”6a00d8341c6a7953ef0134851907f7970c-500wi

Viewing the New York Times docudrama, I reflected on how well Xerox’s campaign actually worked. Almost no one uses Xerox as a verb anymore. It has hung on firmly to the capitalization that defines it as a trademark, in contrast to such casualties as trampoline, escalator, linoleum, and (yes) heroin. (My own view is that Photostat and Kleenex are ready for a lower-casing, but neither The Chronicle nor any other publication for which I’ve written will allow such trademark erosion to affect their style manuals.) We wax foul-mouthed about the deficiencies and personal vendettas exercised by the office photocopier or copy machine, even though Xerox is a lot easier to say.

I’m no economist, and there may be other arguments for the fading away of Xerox as a generic substitute—the rapid rise of other photocopier brands, for instance, or Xerox Corporation’s forays into the computer industry. But when I watched the docudrama, I succumbed once again to the persuasive rhetoric of the company’s brand campaign. No, no, I wanted to tell the poor schlub who was being badgered by the lawyer. Don’t use Xerox to describe your office machine! You might hurt that poor company’s trademark! And then where would be all be? Back smelling the dittos—or, oops, Dittos. They were, after all, made by the Ditto Company, and where are they now?

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