Word Court

Illustration by Sergio Ruzzier

Iweedeat -- as in "used a weedeater." Do I say "I weedate the back forty"? One of my friends avoids the problem by calling the device a weedwhacker, thus enabling the past tense to be weedwhacked.

Barbara Tandy

Boy, are you in trouble, Ms. Tandy -- not with me but with Frigidaire Home Products, which owns the Weed Eater brand, and also with Sears Craftsman, which owns Weedwacker. These companies are anxious lest their brand names go the way of aspirin and escalator -- erstwhile trademarks that became generic through their owners' failure to defend them vigorously.

Seriously, though, each of us must decide to what extent to defer to corporate sensibilities in our language. Should we try to avoid using Xerox as a verb or as a name for the output of a Canon photocopier? Is it all right to offer a guest a Kleenex when Puffs facial tissues are the only brand in the house? Dare we even speak of weed-eating or weed-whacking? In all these cases trademarks are being encroached on. It may be that few care except representatives of the relevant corporations and the nation's copy editors. Copy editors, though, are exactly who prevent generic uses of trademarks from becoming standard, by keeping them out of printed sources. And they do keep them out often enough that in good-quality edited English, generic uses of brand names are the exception, not the rule.

If you're just talking with your friends and neighbors, certainly feel free to say anything you like: weed-ate, weed-eated, Weed Eatered, whatever. If, though, you find yourself wanting to work a reference to operating your Weed Eater™ or your friend's Weedwacker™ into something like a speech or a letter to the editor of your newspaper, you'll seem better attuned to the complexities of modern life if you follow the advice of the spokesman for Frigidaire whom I consulted. He recommends that you say trimmed.

Illustration by Sergio Ruzzier AGriphey. Since I received no response, I turn to you as the only institution with the power to compel major-league baseball to add ñ to its alphabet. Should you fail, I will continue to suffer my nightmare of stepping up to the plate with THOMPSON on my back.

Jan Reeves Thomson

As your fellow baseball fans can no doubt tell from your reference to a grand-slam home run by Raúl Ibáñez, of the Seattle Mariners, you wrote and mailed your letter during last year's baseball season. Ever since, I've been trying on your behalf to stir up some outrage among Hispanic ballplayers. Sorry, but I have had no success.

Though I haven't been in touch with every major-league player whose name properly includes a tilde, as the diacritical mark in question is called, among those players who did talk to Word Court -- for instance, Fernando Viña, of the Cardinals, Roger Cedeño, of the Astros, and (through a spokesperson) Magglio Ordóñez, of the White Sox -- some do have tildes in their names as these appear on their uniforms, and generally they seemed pleased about that. But tildes rarely appear on scoreboards, and the players didn't seem particularly displeased about that; they recognize that scoreboards are harder to modify than uniforms. Lynn Lappin, the director of scoreboard operations for the Florida Marlins' stadium, in Miami, explained that if the stadium wanted to add tildes, "we'd have to change the keyboard mapping of the character generator" -- quite a task. She added, "As it is, the character generator often crashes."

It is true that in Spanish the name Ibáñez, pronounced "Ee-bon-yes," would be considered misspelled if it didn't include a tilde, because Spanish treats n and ñ as separate letters of the alphabet, with distinct pronunciations (the Spanish n sounds like the n in "knuckleball," whereas ñ sounds like the ny in "nyuk-nyuk"). By insisting on tildes in English contexts, though, aren't we implicitly calling for characters like nÿ and n´, to use in other names? Different purveyors of words will answer that question differently. The Atlantic in fact uses tildes and rarely the more exotic characters. But if, as you say, in the world at large a name as simple as Thomson is routinely misspelled, then maybe a sports team that seeks out characters beyond the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet is only looking for trouble.

Ultimately, I think we need to shrug and tell ourselves that English is not a phonetic language, and that correctly pronouncing Raul Ibanez's name, so spelled, is really no trickier than pronouncing Gil Meche's. Furthermore, I have to admit that I'm relieved to have found anything related to ethnic identity about which the people in question are not poised to take offense but seem relaxed.

Barbara Wallraff is a senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly magazine and the author of

Illustration by Sergio Ruzzier.

The Atlantic Monthly; July 2000; Word Court - 00.07; Volume 286, No. 1; page 100.