Language, especially the English language, is constantly changing and growing. Nearly a thousand years ago, English was not the language we know but much more akin to German than anything else. With the fall of the Anglo Saxons in 1066, Norman French was brought in by William the Conqueror and became the mainstay language of the nobility and most of the populace. Old English and Norman French morphed during that time to bring us a language somewhat intelligible to our modern eyes and ears. Since that time, the English language has changed tremendously and has drawn in other words from other languages or even created them from invention or popular usage. Such is the case with the word linoleum. By definition, linoleum designates “A kind of floor-cloth made by coating canvas with a preparation of oxidized linseed-oil” (Oxford English Dictionary). The term linoleum is an invented word stemming from the Latin words linum (flax) and oleum (oil) (Oxford English Dictionary). This product, as one will notice, is not trademarked and therefore generic. Therefore, an analysis is needed to explore the history of this word as well as the history of its becoming generic.
While other types of floor-cloth were used throughout history, the first real floor cloth was invented in 1763 by a Nathan Smith (Powell 19). It was described as, “A mixture of resin, tar, Spanish Brown, beeswax, and linseed oil is attached as a coating to woven material by applying it a high temperature” (Powell 19). Over the next one hundred years, various types of floor cloth were experimented with and invented, all the while becoming more and more flexible (Powell 20). In 1855, a British young man by the name of Frederick Walton found that he could make a rubbery, flexible type of floorcloth out of linseed oil and other substances (Powell 21). In 1860 and 1863, he got a series of patents for his method of making a new floor cloth and the term “Linoleum” was coined shortly thereafter (Powell 22). While this new type of floorcloth was more flexible and usable than other types of floorcloth, it was not easy or quick to make. This was until a young Scotsman by the name of Michael Nairn decided to start his own floor cloth making business. He borrowed money from the bank and worked hard day and night to get the company up and running (Powell 23). His son took over after his death and the business expanded. In the 1870’s, Nairn Jr. found that “linoleum sales were cutting into their floorcloth business” (Powell 23). Therefore, Nairn began to make linoleum to compete with Walton’s rising business. This instigated the trademark crisis for linoleum.
Walton didn’t like this business venture by Nairn and sued him for patent infringement. It must be noted that Nairn devised a new method for making linoleum that was easier and quicker than Walton’s method although perhaps not as good in quality. This made matters worse for Walton and in 1878 he brought them to court. In Nathaniel C. Moak’s Reports of cases decided by the English Courts, there is report on this very case. The case is aptly summarized by the following brief abstract:
Where the inventor of a new substance has given to it a name, and having taken out a patent for his invention, has, during the continuance of the patent, alone made and sold the substance by that name, he is nevertheless not entitled to the exclusive use of that name after the expiration of the patent. (Moak 48)
The point the judges made was that Walton’s patent had expired and sent for a patent for the product, not the name of the substance (Moak 51). The judge then ruled that,
I come, therefore, to the conclusion upon the facts as they are presented to me, and notwithstanding the evidence to which my attention has been drawn on the part of the plaintiffs, the word “Linoleum” did bear that meaning which Mr. Walton put upon it, namely, solidified or oxidized oil; that solidified or oxidized oil may be made by the defendants if they are minded to make it; and if they are minded to call it by the only name which it bears, I think they are at liberty so to do. If I found they were attempting to use that name in connection with other parts of the trademark, so as to make it appear that the oxidized oil made by the defendants was made by the plaintiffs, of course the case would be different. (qtd. in Moak 51)
Nairn won the case and began making his own linoleum. The name Linoleum had been ruled generic and therefore lost its trademark quality. As Powell says in her book on Linoleum, “A mere fourteen years after its invention, linoleum may have been the first product to have been coined a generic term” (23).
It is interesting to think of all the words that have become generic over the years and how they became so. They have become so widely used that their name is no longer trademarked. Linoleum has certainly achieved this status. Linoleum soon became a well-used product on both sides of the Atlantic and became a cheap and attractive floor covering. Today, linoleum has taken somewhat of a back seat to wood flooring and tiles in homes though it is still widely used in cheaper homes.
“Linoleum, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. 19 November 2011. Web.
. Moak, Nathaniel C. ed. Reports of cases decided by the English Courts. Albany: William Gould & Son, 1880. 48-52. Print.
Powell, Jane. Linoleum. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 2003. Print.