Sir: If people want to blow their noses, they may ask for a (blank). If they want to photograph something, they may say they are going to (blank) it. These brand names have become part of our vernacular. Is there a word that represents what I have described?
- Suzanne M.
Answer: Yes, but I'm afraid of your examples. My dictionary spells each of the words you used with a capital and says it's a trademark, and I sure don't want trouble with the owners. But generally, a name that once was a trademark but has now become part of the vernacular is said to be a generic term.
Fierce fights are waged on the issue. There's a new book out on the subject, "Made in America" by Bill Bryson. Among other things, it says that for one reason or another "many dozens of products have lost their trademark protection, among them aspirin, linoleum, yo-yo, thermos, cellophane, milk of magnesia, mimeograph, lanolin, celluloid, dry ice, shredded wheat, kerosene and zipper." At one time, he reports, all these were "proudly capitalized and worth a fortune." Strange world we live in, isn't it?
Sir: I recently heard the expression "to hell in a handbasket" several times within a couple of days. This made me wonder about the possible origin or actual meaning of the phrase. Can you help me out?
- Kathy T.
Answer: Sure can, more or less. A handbasket is not, as one might innocently think, a basket of hands, but a small basket useful only in the expression "to hell in a handbasket," which is useful primarily in making people wonder what it means. That's a sort of mystery, but someone has concluded that it must mean utter ruination. It is said to have been around maybe 400 years or so, though no one seems to know exactly why. Big help, huh?
Sir: The instructions I received for cooking a pizza told me to "preheat oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit." I wrote to those folks about the use of "at" instead of "to" and they sent me a coupon and a very nice letter, but the new package design included "at." Am I missing something?
- Douglas L.
Answer: You got a coupon, didn't you? You're right, of course, about the "to," but you can't eat that. No doubt the pizza people will have to hold an annual meeting of their corporation, poll the directors and consult their lawyers before they dare to change the "at." Meanwhile, you're eating. Enjoy!
Sir: I have a question about the word "drunk." Is the sentence, "The soda must be drunk before it goes flat," correct? Can you tell me the verb tense of "drunk"? I am eagerly awaiting your answer, as are my friends.
- Laurie K.
Answer: Why do I wonder if all we're talking about is soda? Tell your friends the sentence you asked about is correct. As for tenses, tell them to say "I drink, I drank, I have drunk." Be sure to tell them it's "have," not "am."
BRAKE OF THE WEEK, reported by Cal C.:
"My newspaper said of an accident, `The car speeded up and he was unable to break.' What was he unable to break?"