Defining Moments: How Language Shapes Our Lives

Problem fixed with a bandage

sprovost@thetribunenews.comApril 28, 2014 

Steve Provost

Back in 1972, the late, great comedian George Carlin got up on stage and rattled off a monologue called “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.”

I can’t tell you what they are, because you can never write them in a newspaper column, either.

Sometimes, journalists get around this prohibition by substituting the word “expletive” in parentheses, or by using dashes in place of some letters in the word. By counting the dashes, you can usually figure out what the actual words are. It’s kind of like hangman for people with dirty minds — or good practice for a shot at stardom on “Wheel of Fortune.”

But it turns out, there are a lot more than seven dirty words. In addition to the foul-mouthed minions you don’t want your impressionable children reading in The Tribune, there are what you might call the corporate curse words.

These are names of common, everyday items that have become so ingrained in popular culture that you know them by their brand names: like that adhesive tape with the rectangular piece of gauze in the middle. More than likely, you won’t call it a bandage.

You know the one I’m talking about. This product is so popular that a bunch of British pop stars even borrowed its name when they decided to record a charity song called “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” for famine relief back in 1984. If featured people like David Bowie and Paul McCartney, and it’s the project that helped make Bob Geldof a knight. As far as I know, they didn’t get sued for calling themselves B- - - A- -. (Begin practice game of hangman here.) That’s understandable. Suing a group of beloved pop stars making a record for charity wouldn’t exactly have been great P.R.

Still, I dare not reproduce its name here, or that bandage company might take offense. I’m not a beloved pop star, and I’m not writing this column for charity, so I’ll stick with the “Wheel of Fortune” approach.

Oh, I get it. I really do. If you don’t protect your trademark, you might lose it. And I understand that, if someone else makes an inferior product, you probably don’t want your name attached to it. It would be like a Beatles tribute band pretending to be the real group. Wait. They do that anyway. And no matter how good they are, everyone already knows the difference.

So newspapers get notices from attorneys now and then, politely chastening them for inadvertently using a company name in some generic sense. I got one of these letters in my first job as a journalist, after I sinned by using the corporate name to describe a flat, aerodynamic disc without including the requisite trademark symbol.

I felt so ashamed.

But that old flying disc is far from the only example.

You know those big trash receptacles you see alongside apartment complexes? They’re not necessarily what everyone calls them. I can’t repeat that word here, either, because it’s another company trademark. I guess doing so would amount to talking trash.

And you’ve seen people eating out of those disposable, molded foam containers they give you at fast-food joints, right? Well, you really shouldn’t describe them using a name that begins with “s.” The company that trademarked that name wants you to know it makes insulation, not foamy fast-food landfill fodder.

Fair enough. I’m not here to argue. I don’t intend to become the George Carlin of newspapers by waging some misguided war against a bunch of corporate legal eagles. I’m just here to point out how silly this all can get. The way I figure it, getting your company name in print is almost always a good thing. That’s why companies spend oodles of dollars buying naming rights to stadiums and bowl games, so we journalists will have no choice but to refer to the Lo-Flo-Away-We-Go Toilet Bowl or Uncle Charlie’s Chewy Chicken Fried Steakdium.

I can use these names because they’re not real companies, at least as far as I know. If they are, I’ll offer my most profuse apologies in advance. I wouldn’t want to give them any free publicity.

Steve Provost  is a Tribune copy editor. Reach him at sprovost@thetribunenews.com.

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