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How About That?

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Abbott: “Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.”

The New York Times made my day Monday with a great front-page story by Jonathan Mahler about how a “best-selling author and management guru” named Dov Seidman is suing the Chobani yogurt company for stealing his word.

It seems that for about 10 years, Seidman has been using the slogan “How Matters” to emphasize his belief in the importance of ethical processes and procedures in business. In 2011, he wrote a book called How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything. If you think this is starting to sound like an Abbott and Costello routine, just wait.

The yogurt company entered the picture with a strange commercial that aired during the 2014 Super Bowl. It featured a live bear ransacking a country store for a container of honey-flavored Chobani, to the accompaniment of Bob Dylan singing “I Want You.” “A cup of yogurt won’t change the world,” says the avuncular voice-over guy,” but how we make it might. Chobani. How matters.” Thus the company’s new slogan was introduced.

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That didn’t sit well with Seidman, especially since (he asserts) he met with the chairman of Chobani’s ad agency, Droga5, less than a year before the Super Bowl to discuss the how and the why of “how.” He’s ending up suing Chobani and Droga5 for infringing on his trademark for the word. Seidman isn’t claiming, exactly, that he owns “how,” rather that he introduced into the corporate realm its use as a noun.

“If they become the ‘how company,’ how do I show up with ‘How’?” Mahler quotes him as saying, in quintessential Bud and Lou fashion. “How can I go to companies and say, ‘We’d like to come talk to you about your ‘How’?”

Can I stipulate the awesomeness of a lawsuit based on parts of speech? As the author of a book on the subject, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It, the whole thing warms my heart. As for the suit itself, I’d have to concur with one of the experts Mahler quotes, who describes Seidman’s “rights” in connection with the word as “very weak conceptually.”

For one thing, of the  36 different meanings the Oxford English Dictionary offers for “how,” two are nouns.  The relevant entry has a citation for the noun use in 1551. The OED also quotes Longfellow’s use in Evangeline: “Must we in all things look for the how, and the why, and the wherefore?”

Lots of similar words have been used as nouns for years. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be able to listen to The Who’s albums, or read Dave Eggers’s book What Is the What.

Moreover, commercial nounification is a cliché, and not a new one. The blogger and commercial naming consultant Nancy Friedman has been writing about this trend for a long time, most recently in a post that discusses such slogans as “Spread the happy” (Nutella), “Where better happens” (Sears), and “Your best beautiful” (Olay).

As for Seidman’s suit, I tend to agree with what a smart friend (not a lawyer) commented to me: “The case is a particularly stupid and spotlight-hogging attempt to own not just a word but an idea. That’s outside the scope of trademark law and indeed of common sense.”

And how.

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