Trademarking “Día De Los Muertos”

This is a bit off topic for, but I’ve addressed intellectual property issues before, and while I mostly focus on copyright, distinguishing between copyright and trademark is an important thing to do—especially if you’re a reporter writing a story about it.

Disney’s Pixar Studios has an upcoming film based on the Mexican cultural celebration, and Disney made an initial effort to trademark the phrase Día de los Muertos and several other movie related terms and images. After the public outcry, Disney announced they were withdrawing the trademark application.

Let me make clear, Disney’s attempt to create trademarks around Día de los Muertos was a very bad idea, but only because the reaction to it was so predictable. People were bound to assume that Disney was trying to “steal” a cultural tradition. You even got respectable outlets like Language Log publishing an article titled “Is Christmas Next?” It’s purely a public relations problem, not an example of an evil corporation attempting to appropriate a cultural tradition. Not that I don’t think Disney is capable of doing bad things—it has, for example, a reputation in Hollywood as a horrible place to work—but in this case I don’t think Disney intended anything nefarious.

The problem is that people don’t know what a trademark is. They confuse it with patents and copyrights, but it’s really quite different. Trademark law is essentially a consumer protection measure that ensures that products and services are labeled in such a way that one doesn’t confuse one company’s products with another. Trademark is not “ownership,” like copyright or patent. Disney, if had been successful in its trademark bid, it could not have prevented people from celebrating the holiday, or collected royalties from those that did. All it could do under trademark law would be to prevent people from making knock-off products and duping consumers. Trademark law protects a company’s profits from being poached by manufacturers of cheap knock-offs, and it protects consumers by ensuring they’re not mistakenly buying an inferior product. When trademarks are associated with widely known phrases, like Día de los Muertos, the trademark is usually limited to a specific graphical and typographical reproductions. In other words, other companies can still sell Día de los Muertos products, they just can’t label them in the same manner as the Disney movie and its associated products are labeled.

This is a case where a company took what was legally the correct course of action, but which was an incredibly stupid thing to do. Situations like this arise when you put lawyers in charge with no checks on their authority. Lawyers do what’s best for their client under the law, not necessarily what is smart.

[Addition: Svinyard118 makes an excellent point in the comments which I probably should have included when I originally wrote this post. The degree to which Disney’s action truly is objectionable depends on the scope of the trademark claim, which we don’t really know. (We know the categories of products that fall under Disney’s claim, which are numerous and broad, but we don’t know exactly what Disney was trying to trademark.) I assumed that the claim was that the phrase “Día de los Muertos” itself is not trademarked, but that Disney was only trying to trademark specific graphical representations of the phrase, as is typically the case when someone tries to trademark a term or phrase that is in common use. It’s possible that Disney threw out a wider net, claiming that all uses of the phrase in relation to marketing products in a number of broad categories is trademarked, which would be an evil act. Such a wide claim would likely not stand up to a legal challenge, but few companies have the deep pockets needed to go head-to-head with Disney in court, so a wide claim might work.

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A Surfeit of Canadian Slang

There is a particular genre of news article in which a columnist attempts to pack in as many slang words into the available space as possible. The news “value” of such an article is that it supposedly shows “how weird our language is” or “what the cool kids are saying.” In actuality, there is little value in the articles. They’re usually written by going through lists of slang terms and constructing sentences that use as many of the words as possible, so language researchers find little value in them. And, since no one in the real world ever uses so many slang terms at once, these articles give a false impression of how slang is actually used. In real speech, when one comes across an unfamiliar slang term, it’s meaning can usually be deduced from the context. By packing in as many weird words as possible, all context is lost. If there was any context to begin with, since, after all, the point of the article is to make use of random words.

Yet, these articles can be fun.

One such appeared yesterday in The National Post by Dave Bidini that features Canadian slang and regionalisms. A sample from the opening paragraph:

I got off the chesterfield, threw on my old housecoat and thongs, hucked a forty pounder, half-sack of swish and mickey of goof in a Loblaws bag over my shoulder before leaving my bachelor apartment to head due west past fire halls and hydros and parkades and corner stores in the direction of Dead Rear, Oilberta looking for some kind of joe job — cleaning eavestroughs; stitching hockey sweaters; packing Smarties; anything! — although damned if I knew whether I would find work once I got there.

I’ve been living in Canada for almost three years now. I can understand roughly half of the article.

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Interactive Map of San Francisco Toponyms

Noah Veltman, a Knight-Mozilla News Fellow at the BBC, has created an interactive map that displays the origin of place names (mostly street names) in San Francisco. It’s well-designed and easy to use.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy, which is notoriously difficult to achieve with toponymic etymologies, but if the account in this KQED article is correct, it’s probably as accurate as can be: “Reliability was an issue, he said. He tried to cross-check all his facts, because often one source would tell one story and another source would tell it slightly differently. ‘It’s a lot of just manual legwork,” Veltman said. “Looking at old archives, school books, old newspaper articles from The Chronicle, checking out historical society pages. There were certainly no shortcuts.’”

[Tip o’ the Hat to Mic Michelsen]

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Review: How to Write an Essay in Five Easy Steps

How to Write an Essay in Five Easy Steps
Scribendi (Karen Ashford), $2.99 (Kindle e-book)

I’m always on the lookout for good sources of writing advice that I can pass on to my students. So when given the opportunity to review How to Write an Essay in Five Easy Steps I jumped at the chance. (Like most reviews, I get a free copy.) Unfortunately, while this book is adequate, it does not offer much that is new or that makes it stand out from the crowd. It is filled with run-of-the-mill advice that you can find just about anywhere.

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DARE Needs Your Support

The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) is the crown jewel of North American lexicography. It’s a six-volume dictionary of regionalisms gathered from across the United States. The sixth and final volume was published this year, but its work is not yet done. The dictionary’s staff is hard at work creating a digital version that will not only make the work more accessible, but will be the home for future updates and additions. Or would be except DARE’s work has been threatened by a sudden loss of funding. The foundation that has long funded the project has declined to renew the grant, and the University of Wisconsin, where the dictionary is housed, is itself in severe financial straits due to cuts in government funding.

DARE editor Joan Houston Hall reports that the staff will be laid off as of July and that her own position disappears in January. The dictionary is on life support and reduced to begging for scraps in order to stay alive long enough to win another grant.

If you are able to contribute, you can do so here.

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Originally a noun (and still a noun in some isolated uses), the adjective dismal comes into English, like many of our words, with the Normans, a compound formed from the Old French phrase dis mal, which in turn is from the Latin dies mali or “bad days.” The noun dismal, meaning bad or unlucky days, appears in English c. 1300. For example, around 1369 Chaucer writes in The Book of the Duchess, lines 1206–07:

I trowe hyt was in the dismalle,
That was the .x. woundes of Egipte.
(I believe it was in the dismal,
that was the ten wounds of Egypt.)

The dismal, also called the Egyptian days because they were first calculated by Egyptian astrologers, consisted of two days per month on which it was unlucky to start a journey or begin a venture. In the Middle Ages, the days became associated with plagues of Egypt described in Exodus, hence the Chaucer quote.

By the fifteenth century the association with the Latin dies, “days,” had been sufficiently forgotten that people started referring to them with the redundant dismal days, as in Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes, written c. 1421, line 2893:

He hath pronounced [...] his Cleer conceyte [...] her dysemol daies and her fatal houres.
(He has pronounced [...] his clear understanding [...] her dismal days and her fatal hours.)

By the sixteenth century, dismal was being used as an adjective meaning unlucky or disastrous. By the seventeenth century it was being used to mean dark, gloomy, or cheerless.

Sources: “dismal, n. and adj.” Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition, 1989; “dismal, n. and adj.” Middle English Dictionary, 2001.

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April fool

The practice of playing tricks on other people on the first of April arose in Europe and crossed the channel to Britain in the late seventeenth century. No one is certain why April first is associated with pranks, and there are numerous conjectures, but since none have any strong evidence supporting them, I won’t list them here.

The earliest known use of the phrase April fool in English is in William Congreve’s 1693 play The Old Batchelour (1.1.5):

That’s one of Loves April-fools, is always upon some errand that’s to no purpose.

But this is a general reference to a man smitten with love, rather than the victim of a prank. But within a two decades we have references to the practice, witnessed by Joseph Addison in the pages of The Spectator in 1711:

An ingenious Tribe of Men [...] who are for making April Fools every Day in the Year. These Gentlemen are commonly distinguished by the name of Biters.

And Adam Fitz-Adam refers to April Fool’s Day in his 1753 book The World:

No wise man will tell me that it is not as reasonable to fall out for the observance of April-fool-day.

Source: The Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd edition, “April fool, n.,” September 2008.

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up a creek, creek

See creek.

creek, up a creek

I had no idea that British usage of creek was different from the use of the word in the rest of the English-speaking world until I was translating an Old Norse work (appropriately enough regarding the discovery and exploration of Vinland) and found that my Old Norse dictionary, produced in the U. K., translated the word vágr as “bay, creek.” Unsure what was intended, a bay or a creek, I did some digging and discovered in British dialect the two words were synonyms. (Just to be clear, there is no etymological connection with the Old Norse vágr. Creek is simply a translation.)

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Acre, the unit of land measurement, comes down to us from the Old English æcer. The word is common throughout the Germanic languages, and has cognates in other Indo-European languages too, like the Latin ager and the Greek ἀγρός ”field," and the Sanskrit ajra ”plain, open country.” The modern spelling is influenced by the Norman French version of the word.

The exact definition of acre has varied over the centuries, and originally it referred to the amount of land a team of oxen could plow in one day, as recorded in Ælfric’s Colloquy, an early eleventh century schoolbook for teaching Latin, which among other things describes various occupations. It has this to say about a plowman:

Omni die debeo aratre [read arare] integrum agrum aut plus : ælce dæg ic sceal erian fulne æþer [read æcer] oþþe mare.
(Each day I must plow a full acre or more.)

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)

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