« No Oxfording, please | Main | Cassandra was right »

Don't call it Styrofoam

Here’s a scattering of references from articles in The Baltimore Sun in recent months:

Styrofoam packing peanuts

tie a Styrofoam cup to a long string

ornaments made of Styrofoam and peas

nary a Styrofoam clamshell or piece of plastic wrap in sight

200 tons of debris in the harbor each year …much of it Styrofoam and light plastic.

eliminating Styrofoam containers

replacing Styrofoam coffee cups with "ecotainers"

The problem: It is unlikely that any of those references are actually to Styrofoam.

The Dow Chemical Co. manufactures a product called Styrofoam, an expanded polystyrene foam used for thermal insulation. It is a blue material that you can see being applied to the sides of houses under construction.

Disposable drinking cups and food containers, packing peanuts, coolers and similar products are not made of Styrofoam, but of an extruded polystyrene foam, typically white, made up of tiny beads.

Colloquial usage may have made styrofoam the common term for plastic foam cups, but anyone who aspires to be an exact writer will avoid it.

This is not an exact parallel with cases of other trade names that turned into generics. A xerox or a kleenex may not be a Xerox or a Kleenex, but in both cases the name brand and the generic product are the same kind of thing. Styrofoam and the plastic foam used in drinking cups are different substances, and we generally find it convenient to have different names for different things.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:50 AM | | Comments (6)


Not to mention, you run the risk of getting a cease-and-desist type of letter from Dow. That happened to a friend of mine, and I had the same experience when I made the mistake of referring to tailgaters playing Frisbee, rather than with a "flying plastic disc." Considering I was working at a tiny 5,000 circulation daily at the time, I was impressed that the Frisbee folks were so on the ball!

I would never use "xerox" or "kleenex" as a generic! (not even "Xerox" or "Kleenex"--and lower-casing the capital is not a defense)

And in fact, it would surprise me today to see any writer, no matter how lazy, try to use them.

I don't think most of the people I converse w/ use these terms exclusively. "Copier" and "tissue" are not weird or awkward, and are in common, widespread use.

I have some sympathy w/ people who use the trademarks Styrofoam, Frisbee, and Velcro, bcs often there isn't a really easy, readily recognizable generic.

Polystyrene is too long and implies a scientific accuracy that might not be there--there are other chemical compositions for those hard foams (maybe "styrene" would work, I'd have to research; if it were OK scientifically, that would be my generic of choice--"styrene foam").

Frisbee has "flying disk" or "flying saucer," but I think people need a beat or two before they recognize it.

Velcro's "hook and loop fastener" is just long and unwieldy, though it is very accurate, and useful if you start to talk about the two halves separately (as in how-to copy). Time was, Velcro was the only brand (or the only one I ever saw), so there was sort of an argument that you were actually referring to the real Velcro. But now, many other companies make this sort of product.

My biggest objection to using trademarks when you should use a generic is that I don't like implying an *endorsement* of these brands. They're usually the largest, most well-known brand, and I feel it's unfair to "the little guy" to imply that only the brand-name version will do.

Plus, if they want me to build their brand for them, they can pay for an ad!

On the cease-and-desist letters: I was told by someone who at the time ran the Trademark Hotline that the cease-and-desist letters were basically a formulaic response required by the courts to prove that the company is "policing" its trademark; they company is very unlikely to pursue further legal action, but being able to produce copies of all those letters in court would bolster their argument should they ever need to sue ANYBODY over a trademark issue. They hire a clipping service, and a paralegal or a secretary to skim through for improper usage, and they fire them out automatically)

Indeed. Have a look at an ealier post on lawyer letters:

A few years ago, Dow sent us a nice ceramic coffee mug with "There is no such thing as a Styrofoam cup" written on it. That was a nice way to remind us to use Styrofoam correctly.

A trademark we're always changing on the desk is "Dumpster" to "trash bin."

And one of our writers got a nice cease-and-desist letter for using "Snap, Crackle and Pop" in a column without referencing Rice Krispies.

Not to mention that terms like 'xerox' to mean photocopying and 'kleenex' to refer to tissues really have little coin over here in Europe. So if you try to reach an international crowd you're very likely to confuse your readers.

I worked at a small weekly that got a nice lawyer letter for using "Jaws of Life." Didn't know that was a trademark.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected