Posts tagged prescriptive linguists

Thou shalt not use LEGO as a generic term!

I found these guidelines on tumblr the other day. As a linguist, I have my own thoughts about language guidelines. In short: They don’t work.

First things first: LEGO® is the acronym derived from Danish leg godt (play-well) and was initially used as an adjective. Not everybody knows that and it is not important as long as you only play with the bricks and minifigures and don’t talk/ write about it. But since the Lego brand has been introduced to kids world wide, the use has changed.

Like with other brand names, the name is now used as a noun, at least in German and in English. I cannot think of any other brand name that was an adjective initially, but other brand names have become verbs (to hoover or to xerox) even if the apparatus used is not of that brand and have therefore crossed the border between one word class and another. The brand name (of the leading company) has become generic for any brand of this type of apparatus. I don’t know about that in English, but in German, many people use the tissue brand’s name Tempo for any kind of handkerchief and Nutella for any kind of chocolate hazelnut spread.

I guess that The Lego Company (TLG) is afraid that the name “Lego” has become generic for this kind of toy, especially since the patent has expired in 1988s. (“The LEGO brand name must never be used as a generic term…”) They probably want to prevent companies like Megabloks and others to use “Lego” generically and to profit from its good name. I completely understand that. However, I am quite sure that TFOLs and AFOLs are aware of the differences. Even if they use “Lego” generically (“Look at my Lego creations!”, “Lets build something with Lego!” - even though there might be some Megabloks parts in it), they will know what part is original Lego® and what had been made by another company.

Another point why “Lego” will continue to be used on its own with no “bricks” or “minifigures” following it, is language economy. Why say more words than you need to? People are abbrevating everything they can. Why else would there be the word “minifig”? Especially with a huge online community, language is bound to be economical. If they’re so keen on keeping the complete name, why call it “Lego” in the first place and not stay with “leg godt”?

About point 1, the use of capital letters: LEGO is an acronym, a shortened form of the two Danish words “leg” and “godt” that can be read as a word rather than single letters (like in FBI or TLG). Other examples for acronyms are sonar = sound navigation and ranging, laser = Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation, TARDIS = Time and Relative Dimension in Space, scuba = self contained underwater breathing apparatus. For words like sonar or laser, most people will probably have forgotten that they are acronyms at all. Like Hoover or Xerox they have become verbs and are therefore written with lower cases only. Although I don’t think that Lego will ever be used as a verb (but you never know), why not write only the first letter with an upper case like any other brand name (Nutella again…getting a craving for it now)?

Actually, TLG should decide whether they want Lego to be an adjective or not. Adjectives aren’t written with capital letters. Don’t teach children to write adjectives in capital letters, for f*’s sake! (Yes, reading the guidelines made me angry.)

To give you an example how language guidelines do not work: In 1982, the EU decided to pass a law that only spreads made of citrus fruits shall be called “marmelade” (“Marmelade” in German) and everything made from other types of fruit shall be called “jam” (“Konfitüre” in German). This happened 30 years ago and nobody knows about it or cares. Everybody uses “Marmelade” for any kind of fruit spread in the colloquial. “Konfitüre” is only considered a posher word for it, I guess.

Dear TLG, language is a tool which people adapt when neccessary. Don’t think in inflexible bricks all the time. A word on its own is like a brick, but in a context it can be everything. Although a word and Lego brick cannot change their shape, they may be something else depending on the speaker/ builder.

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