After DuPont bans Teflon from WordNet, the world is their non-sticky oyster

by Toma Tasovac. Average Reading Time: almost 8 minutes.

I lived in the United States for more than a decade — long enough to know that litigation is not just a judiciary battle about enforcing legal rights: it’s a way of life. I have also over the years watched with amusement how dictionaries get used in American courtrooms, from Martha Nussbaum’s unfortunate reading of the Liddell-Scott on τόλμημα in Romer vs. Evans in 1993 to a recent case in which Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. parsed the meaning of a federal law by consulting no less than five dictionaries: one of the words he focused on was the preposition of. While Martha Nussbaum’s court drama about moral philosophy, scholarly integrity, homosexual desire and the nature of shame would make a great movie (staring, inevitably, as pretty much every other movie out there – Meryl Streep), Chief Justice Roberts’ dreadful, ho-hum lexicographic exercise would barely pass the Judge Judy test of how-low-can-we-go: he discovered that the meaning of of had something to do with belonging or possession. Pass the remote, please!

I get a strange sense of naughty pleasure thinking about dictionaries as court evidence. Apparently, there are people who still see the dictionary as a source of ultimate authority on all questions of meaning. I am personally very fond of delusions: there is something cozy and reassuring about expecting that somebody else has all the answers. So, in my spare time, I have started thinking about translating dictionary knowledge into litigious strategies for becoming filthy rich. For instance, I am toying with the idea of suing Starbucks for calling those murky drinks they serve coffee. My evidence of foul play at Starbucks is based on Thomas Blount’s Glossographia (1661), which clearly states that “coffa” or “cauphe” is “a kind of drink among the Turks and Persians, which is black, thick and bitter, distrained from Berries of that nature, and name, thought good and very wholesome: they say it expels melancholy, purges choler, begets mirth, and an excellent concoction.” Now, while Starbucks’ white chocolate mocha may be “an excellent concoction,” every single morning it fails to purge my choler and expel my melancholy. It keeps me awake, but I see no traces of early-morning mirth. Somebody should pay for that.

On February 17, 2012, Christiane Fellbaum, a prominent scholar and member of the original team that brought us WordNet — a comprehensive, open-sourced, machine-readable lexical database of the English language — sent the following email to the WN-USERS list:

Dear WordNet users, Lawyers representing DuPont contacted us recently and expressed their dissatisfaction with WordNet’s current entry for Teflon®, which does not indicate that is a registered trademark. To settle, we agreed to remove the relevant entry from the WordNet database (which will be reflected in the all future public releases) and to notify you via the user group of this change.

WordNet is arguably the single most important lexical resource for the natural language processing of English. It has become the cornerstone of numerous computational projects ranging from text analysis and word-sense disambiguation to question and answer (Q&A) and search-engine query expansion. I have no doubt that it will survive without Teflon, which it defined as “a material used to coat cooking utensils and in industrial applications where sticking is to be avoided.” But the very fact that corporate muscle-flexing can force harmless drudges into submission and self-censorship is a troubling — if completely farcical — example of the self-perpetuating power of capital. At the same time, it is the ultimate proof of how legal minds still can’t comprehend the fact that dictionaries are about how real people use words in the real world. Or they can, but they don’t care, because, as a Tajik policeman in Dushanbe once told me, while trying to extort money out of me, “we all need to get our breakfast somehow.”

DuPont is one of the largest chemical companies in the world. Between 2008 and 2010, it made more than $2 billion in profit, paid no federal income taxes, spent almost $14 million on lobbying and increased its executive compensations by a phenomenal 188%. It seems that DuPont did quite well — despite WordNet’s shockingly irreverent entry on Teflon. Surprising, isn’t it, considering that the use of trademarks as generic words1 in dictionaries usually translates into enormous losses for big companies. Kleenex has been practically ruined by lexicographers, and Hoover driven off the market in all but very remote corners of the earth where dictionaries themselves have been banned for political reasons.

I would therefore like to ask members of the DuPont Board of Directors and, especially Robert A. Brown, the President of Boston University, as a fellow academic — not to stop here. Lexicographers are not exactly Trojan war heroes so winning a victory against us is really not that impressive. DuPont should spin off a Division for Lexicography, Trademark Enforcement and World Domination, whose only goal would be to protect the interests of the company by messing with the way people use language.

Here are some tips on what they could do. I offer seven of these without any hope for compensation, out of the goodness of my heart, because I am sick and tired of lexicographers destroying the American industry.

1. Go after regular people. Imagine the endless possibilities of suing every single person who ever uttered the word “Teflon” without indicating that it was a registered trademark, including the descendants of those who did so in the past.

2. Lobby the Congress to pass a bill that would make the non-reporting of the generic use of Teflon a punishable offence. Get all those rebellious teens to turn against their friends and family.

3. Invest in surveillance and speech-recognition technology. Start eavesdropping on cell phone networks, monitor people’s email accounts, get in bed with Facebook and Twitter. Instill fear.

4. Threaten Google. Google has indexed millions of documents in which the legal ownership of Teflon is not properly acknowledged. Set up a system in which you get paid every time somebody clicks on a link leading to trademark-defying material, while their personal data and their IP address are immediately reported to the police. Two birds with one stone.

5. Outlaw metaphors. Using the awe and shock technique, instigate some very visible court cases predicated upon the idea of public humiliation. I suggest going after Nancy Reagan because she is old and she lived in the White House during what was commonly referred to as the Teflon Presidency of her husband Ronald. Once you have her sentenced, it will be a piece of cake to get other less prominent metaphor abusers such as Silk White, the author of a 2011 novel about a professional assassin called Angela: “Jerry had never seen her before, but when he looked her in her eyes he knew exactly who he was looking in the eyes…….Angela, also known as the Teflon Queen.”)

6. Once you have secured a deal with Google over the indexing of non-trademarked Teflon, play a double trick on Larry and Brin and sue them again — this time for the deficiencies in the optical character recognition (OCR) of older Google Books materials that could seriously damage DuPont’s reputation.

For instance, in the English translation of Histoire de Guillaume le Conquérant (1742) by the Abbé Prévost, which was published in A Literary Journal in Dublin three years after its Paris debut, Google’s OCRed version contains the following bizarre passage:

They saw at a Distance a Company of Knights; William recollected the chief of them, who was Raoul de Teflon, and said to the King of France, I know he is my Friend. In Fact, Teflon had always been faithful to the Duke.

No, there was no Count of Teflon, even though I am told that the gunpowder manufacturer Eleuthère Irénée du Pont, the founder of the American du Pont dynasty, descended from minor French aristocracy. Google should pay big bucks for letting its character recognition system mistake Raoul de Tesson for Raoul de Teflon, the same way it botched the word lesson so that we got this fantastic passage from Gildon’s Laws of Poetry (1721):

But the sufferings of perfect innocence make an immediate and impious assault upon the existence of this providence, and produce a most execrable teflon, that it is in vain to be virtuous…

7. Go against every single digital library in the world. The optical character recognition gets worse as we go back in time. Significant word accuracy of OCRd 19th-cent English newspapers for instance is only 48.4%, so the chances are that you will find many other words that OCR engines spit out as Teflon without paying due respect to DuPont.

Dictionaries lie at the core of the human ability to conceptualize, systematize and convey meaning. They are essential tools even though they are, by definition, not perfect. And, while lexicography by command works very well in North Korea, it is beyond embarrassing that corporate bullying of this kind is still inflicted upon American lexicographers. DuPont has made a fool of itself.

Post Scriptum. I have three more killer tips for how to rule the world by means of lexicographic black magic, but they are patented and trademarked. I am willing to discuss business propositions with DuPont representatives in strictest confidence.

Show 1 footnote

  1. A term is considered generic, if “in the minds of the members of actual and potential customers, the term denotes the product or service itself (e.g. IT: aspirin, automobile, theme park), not the name of a brand of product of service (e.g. Bayer, Ford, Disneyland)”. Ronald R. Butters, “Trademarks and other proprietary terms” in Gibson, John and Teresa M. Turell, Dimensions of forensic linguistics, John Benjamins Publishing Co: Amsterdam and Philadelphia, 2008, p. 240.

14 comments on ‘After DuPont bans Teflon from WordNet, the world is their non-sticky oyster’

  1. roger tubby says:

    Toma – many thanks for your splendid article on the lunacy of litigation, especially as practiced by our snake-infested legal system supposedly upholding values. I’ve watched small companies be totally put out of business due to an unfortunate intersection of some letters in a company name or motto, even if there was zero room for misinterpretation by any real person. Witness: “Eat More Kale” being sued by Sick Fila for infringement over their witty “Eat mor chiken”.

    • Toma Tasovac says:

      Thanks a lot for your comment Roger! Next time I hear my mother say “eat more chicken” I will know how to respond!

  2. HP says:

    You wrote: “…DuPont does not descend from French aristocracy.”

    That didn’t sound quite right to me, but I’m not an expert on Robber Baron genealogy, so I looked it up. According to Wikipedia, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours (founder of the American DuPont dynasty) is “descendant of a minor noble family on his mother’s side.”

    So there ya go.

  3. Stuart says:

    “I am toying with the idea of suing Starbucks for calling those murky drinks they serve coffee.” This should be a criminal, not a civil case, and would have to go before the International Court of Justice, but you would have crores of eager co-plaintiffs, I assure you.

  4. Wanton says:

    If I recall correctly, all a company need do to protect it’s Trademark (eg Google, Hoover, Kleenex, and, oh, Teflon) is to ensure NONE of its employees ever mispell, miscapitalize it. Google can still be a neologistic verb while Google Inc still clearly would sue the pants off anyone claiming to be Google. Shame on DuPont.

  5. Glenn Hyatt says:

    “I am willing to discuss business propositions with DuPont representatives in strictest confidence.”

    What? No NDA?

  6. Laura Heymann says:

    If a bit of self-promotion is OK: I’ve written about this problem from a legal perspective, noting the problems that arise when courts fail to recognize the playful ways in which we use trademarks. I’d welcome any comments.


    • Toma Tasovac says:

      Thanks for the link, Laura. I am by no means a legal scholar, but I enjoyed reading your essay: it makes perfect sense to me, and you have great examples to support your argument. Not to mention that my jaws dropped when you referred to genericide — it really must be one of the worst constructed neologisms ever.

  7. Ron Butters says:

    Trademark owners must do more than make sure that they do not misuse the mark themselves. To be totally safe, they must also protest when dicitdonaries to not give them proper credit. However, WordNet need only have ignored DuPont’s request. It is not illegal for a dictionary to report facts of usage, nor would DuPont be able to win a lawsuit against them. On the other hand, given that TEFLON is a registered trademark and well-known to be just that, a dictionary maker ought to report that aspect of the meaning of the word.

  8. [...] After DuPont bans Teflon from WordNet, the world is their non-sticky oyster [...]

  9. [...] think you might find this very witty post on the So Meta blog, After DuPont bans Teflon® from WordNet, the world is their non-sticky oyster, amusing (or possibly [...]

  10. Stephen E Holmes says:

    I did a Yahoo search on this subject hoping there was a generic term for Teflon. I feel that this is a standard process. I work with refrigerants and that is how we, in the HVAC trade refer to them, rather than “Freon”. I propose we create a generic term for Teflon. Since the chemical name is polytetraphloroethyene, and it acts similar to ceramic, perhaps something like “Polyramic”… a polyramic coating.

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