Generic name

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Among the generic name ( Latin nouns appellatives ; also: generic , generic words , appellatives , appellatives ) are words for generic concepts - in the sense of intellectual concepts - such as house, animal or tree . In addition to proper names (nouns propria), they form a subclass of nouns .

Main features of the generic names

Syntactic features

In contrast to the treatment of proper names in standard German, generic names are regularly combined with an article. The indefinite plural is not marked with an article in German, however, generic names in the plural are therefore already complete expressions even without an article (e.g. “houses” or “women” as well as “the house” or “the woman”).

Large and lower case

In contrast to proper names, common names are nowadays written in lower case in most languages ​​that use the Latin alphabet and can thus be easily distinguished from proper names. In German, however, (among other things) all nouns are capitalized.

Adjectives in generic names

Adjectives can also be part of generic names. Examples of this are great white shark , heavy cruiser , black hole , botanical garden , etc. They are also capitalized in German.

Semantic characteristics

A word is counted as a proper name if it refers to a single object (e.g. to the person Herbert or the place Augsburg). In contrast, the generic names are the words that can be used to refer to classes of objects. (For example, the word “houses” can be used to refer to the houses of this world.)

In the case of generic and substance names, it is possible to infer the properties of the objects referred to from the word. (For example, from “dog” one can infer the property “has a fur”).

Generic names refer to concepts because of characteristics. The reference may therefore be vague . That means: In some situations it can remain unclear whether certain objects fall under the concept addressed by the generic name. For example, a structure can be “more or less” a tower, so that there is no clear allocation.

Differentiation of generic names and proper names - possible cases of doubt

While it is quite easy to give convincing definitions of the terms “proper name” and “generic name”, in practice it can be quite difficult to determine which of the two definitions a given expression falls under. A list of typical cases of doubt follows here.

Generic names with which specific individual objects are referred to

The possibility of referring to a specific individual object is not only offered by proper names. If it is said in a company that “the boss” is out of the office, then it is clear to those involved who is being talked about.

The same applies to expressions like “mother” or “grandpa”. It can be deduced from the context who is meant when "mother" or "grandpa" is spoken of.

However, the expressions listed are counted among the generic names.


Many words can appear both as proper names and as generic names, especially if there is a prototypical representative after which the class is called ( deonym ):

  • The sun laughed from the sky (meaning the star in the center of the solar system in which the earth is located)
  • There is a sun at the center of every solar system .
  • St. Francis prayed to God . (meaning the God of the Christian religions)
  • Homer and Hesiod brought the gods into a certain order.

Unclear reference for proper names

A clear reference is not always given for proper names. Formulations such as “Berlin welcomes the decision of the American President” and “Berlin beats Hamburg 2: 1” are metonymic expressions, whereby in the first case “Berlin” stands for the federal government and in the second case for the city's soccer team .

In both cases the reader / listener can only determine what the term “Berlin” refers to if he takes into account the context of the utterance and brings world knowledge to the text.

Proper names that have a "connotative meaning"

By definition, proper names are expressions that are used to refer to objects and convey no (or almost no) meaning. However, many examples show that proper names can have all sorts of connotations . In the following example sentences, these connotations come to the fore so strongly that the proper names appear like generic names:

  • The Hanover Fair is the Mecca of mechanical engineering.
  • She is Mother Teresa in our city.
  • He's not exactly an Einstein either.
  • Pension reform became his waterloo .

Proper names such as generic names are used here, but their main function is still that they are used to identify or describe objects.

Proper names that are used like substance names

There is also the phenomenon that proper names are used like substance names. Rhetorically, these are metonymies :

  • Lisa listened to Beethoven for an hour .
  • Two hours of Schiller were enough.

Proper names used as generic names

Examples of proper names that are used as generic names:

  • We have to order ten Maria Stuart . (meaning: ten copies of the book)
  • The customer wants five Mona Lisas . (meaning: five prints)
  • Two Picassos were stolen in Bern . (meaning: two works by Picasso)

Here one is dealing with proper names, which occasionally have the function of generic names, but the identifying function is to be seen as dominant.

Proper names formed from generic names

  • Toponyms such as "On the beet field", "Before the tall fir", ...
  • Proper names such as "Social Democratic Party of Germany", "Institute for German Language", ...

Conclusion on the doubtful cases

With the examples given it can be shown that the transitions between proper names and generic names are fluid. Although it is possible to state for most nouns whether they are used primarily as proper names or as generic names, one must keep in mind that noun expressions can be used at any time that bring them into the border area of ​​common names and proper names .

Generic names in legal contexts

The question of whether a particular expression should be seen as a generic name or as a proper name is decided in some cases by administrative bodies and courts. If it is stipulated that a term is to be seen as a proper name, this usually means that there are restrictions on the use of the term. Occasionally there are also cases where administrative bodies or courts decide who can use a particular generic name in a particular context.

Denominations of Origin

The word combination “Münchner Weißwurst” consists of the generic name “Weißwurst”, supplemented by a proper name with an attributive function. You usually see an expression like “Münchner Weißwurst” as a designation of origin .

As soon as restrictions under trademark law are set for the use of the expression, the function of the expression can approximate the product name . The right to label products with the label “Münchner Weißwurst” is then not in the hands of a single company (as is usual with product names), but the expression can no longer be used as freely as it is otherwise the case with generic names. There are then certain companies that are allowed to offer their products as "Munich white sausages", while there are others who are denied this privilege.

Product names are usually viewed by linguists as expressions that are located in between generic names and proper names, because on the one hand they - as well as generic names - often designate a type of object (see for example "Hanutas", "Vespas", ...) On the other hand, the connection between the objects and the name was created through an act of naming - as is typical for proper names. See product name .

Protection for product names (generalized or generic brand names)

Generalized or generic brand names arise when a product protected by patent and trademark law is launched on the market without competition, thus becoming dominant and as a result consumers use the same name for similar competing products that are available later. Such brand names are also called “monopoly of terms”. Examples are “ Selterswasser ”, “ Tempo ”, “ Tesafilm ” (or “ Tixostreifen ” in Austria), “ UHU ”, “ ob ”, “ Walkman ”, “ Melex ”, “ Ohropax ”, “ Xerox ”, “ Skai (artificial leather ) ”And many more.

For a company, it can have economic disadvantages if a product name it holds becomes a generic name through common usage, as an extension of the trademark protection can be refused after the trademark protection period has expired if the brand name has become a generic term in general.

For Google it is unfavorable that the name “Google” has almost become a synonym for “search engine”. In today's usage of the word “ googling ”, however, the tendency to turn the company name into a generic name is already recognizable. In order to put a stop to this development, the company's legal representatives are strongly committed to ensuring that the meaning of the verb “googeln” in dictionaries does not include the words “search the Internet” but rather the words “search the Internet with Google” becomes. Such influence has become known in the Duden and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary . With the Swedish Language Council, too, Google has already achieved that the word ogooglebar (“ungooglebar”) is no longer listed in a neologism list with the meaning “cannot be found with a search engine” . The aim is to save the name “Google” from the fate of many other product names which, because they have become generic names, can no longer be protected under trademark law.

Sometimes verbs even develop from the brand name that has become a generic term in this way. In the case of the generic name “Flex” for angle grinder, the colloquial verb - “flexen” - was formed. Further examples are “ blow drying ”, “ kärcher ” and, as already mentioned, “googling”.

Domain law

It has often been argued before courts whether it is permissible for a generic name to be used as a domain name in an Internet address. A tendency can be seen that the right to use generic names as domain names is not fundamentally denied. For example, in a judgment on a dispute about the domain, it was stated that the use of this domain does not lead to any inadmissible channeling of customer flows :

“Anyone interested in a sauna knows that there are several suppliers on this market. In view of the size of the investment that is connected with the purchase of a sauna, he will not be deterred from obtaining other information. "

A sample trial at the Federal Court of Justice (BGH) via the URL also came to such a conclusion.

Large and lower case

In languages ​​such as English and French, the ability to distinguish between proper names and common names is fundamental to spelling, as proper names are capitalized here, but other nouns are not. There is a major difference between English and French rules: While the adjectival form of proper names is capitalized in English, it is capitalized in French: “a French word” is English “ a French word ” and French “  un mot français  ”. The corresponding spelling concept is discussed in the German-speaking area under the heading " moderate lower case ". During the deliberations on the spelling reform of 1996 , this concept was rejected; Instead, they decided to use a modified capitalization.

If the advocates of the moderate lower case had prevailed in the consultations on the spelling reform, then all the considerations in this article on the subject of "Distinction between proper names and generic names" would have become relevant for everyday spelling practice:

  • One would then write: “She looked at herself in the mirror”, but: “I read that in the mirror”.
  • One would write: “She quoted from the Bible”, but: “The Pschyrembel is the bible of medicine”.

Special complications arise in the context of the moderate lower case in brand, product and company names, as the following example shows:

  • Porsche's annual sales increased by 12%.
  • I bought a new porsche.

Consequently, when using the word "train" one would have to determine whether the company is meant (example sentence 1) or the means of transport (example sentence 2):

  1. I'm going to Stuttgart by train.
  2. I'm taking the train to stuttgart.

See also

On epistemological aspects:

On linguistic aspects:

Regarding trademark law aspects:

In biology:


  • Peter Eisenberg : noun or proper name? About the principles of our rules on upper and lower case . In: Linguistic Reports . No. 72 , 1981, pp. 77-101 .
  • Heinz father: proper names and generic names. Attempt to differentiate . In: mother tongue . No. 75 , 1965, pp. 207-213 .

Web links

Wiktionary: generic name  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Eva Pöcksteiner: The Markukt. How a brand becomes a monopoly of terms! A communication science research approach between appellative and free character. Dissertation, University of Vienna 2009.
  2. ( Page no longer available , search in web archives: The most famous brands used as a generic term ) In: See extensive list of brands used as a generic term . In: 2Template: Dead Link /
  3. Lassen- 152201.html
  4. So Google Is No Brand X, but What Is 'Genericide'? , dated August 5, 2006
  5. .
  6. Matthias Heine: No more “googling” . In: Welt Online , August 15, 2006, accessed February 11, 2008.
  7. ^ Higher Regional Court Hamm: Judgment Az .: 4 U 95/00 “” - generic term permitted as a domain name ( Memento of December 10, 2005 in the Internet Archive ), November 2, 2000
  8. Federal Court of Justice: Judgment Az .: I ZR 216/99 ( Memento of the original from January 31, 2007 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. , May 17, 2001. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /