I F’ing Own You

Last year, a nasty little brouhaha of words erupted between the National Football League and a city that had waited and waited (and waited) for a Miracle in New Orleans. The problem? The league wanted its Who Dat? back.

Briefly, “Who dat gonna beat them Saints?” had become a rallying cry for fans, who called themselves the Who Dat Nation. The NFL claimed they owned the phrase and the Fleur-de-lis symbol often depicted with it. The league sent out cease and desist letters to merchants selling Who Dat? paraphernalia. The Nation was not amused—or scared. Politicians and the state attorney general got involved. The big dog backed off, and while lawsuits remain pending between the NFL and some area merchants, the Nation has been left to Who Dat? in peace.

But now another city is embroiled in a trademark debate. A diner owner in Baltimore has purchased a trademark on the word…well, I won’t write it, since I don’t own it. (And because I don’t want to publicize it.) Some Baltimoreans are not happy about this.

I know little about copyright and trademark law, but this makes me wonder. It makes sense that a product name be trademarked, and I agree that a phrase used as an identifier or for advertising should be protected, too. But can someone claim ownership of a word that’s in common use? What’s next—someone’s going to lay claim to the alphabet? “I want to buy a vowel” should only apply to game shows, not real life, right?

I am watching this story carefully because I think conflict over words is important. But, I admit, I am piqued by some crassness, too. If a person can indeed trademark a word, as the news story says, there’s the potential for a cash cow.

If that’s so, then I think this lady chose the wrong word. If you’re going to trademark a word, and everyone must pay to use this word, do you go with a relatively innocuous one like ______(still not writing it)? All respect to Baltimoreans, but there’s not going to be a Word-I’m-Not-Going-To-Publicize Nation.

No, if I was going to buy a word, I’d choose one whose impact would be profound if people were no longer freely allowed to use it.

Hence, I’ve decide to trademark the F word. No, not Facebook–the other F word.

The F word used to be forbidden on TV, unacceptable in books, and never said by nice people in public. That’s all history. Nowadays, it’s spoken almost anywhere, anytime, in anybody’s presence. There are still limitations to its use on TV and the airwaves, but HBO could not write an original series without it. The Urban Dictionary has over 50 pages of usage beginning with it—and that’s just the traditional spelling.

That’s not to say that it’s universally accepted. In 2008, Central Lafourche High School, home of the Fighting Trojans and my alma mater, banned the book Black Hawk Down because the language did not meet standards of decency set by the local school district. Too much cursing under fire, apparently. I suppose decent soldiers stomp their feet and say something like, “Well, drat gosh darn!” while under deadly enemy attack.

This bout of censorship could have been avoided if I owned the F word. I’d have allowed Mark Bowden, the author, to drop all the F-bombs necessary to reflect that war-is-hell-thing, since “Drat gosh darn!” just doesn’t quite cut it in my mind. And I would not have charged him a dime. In a graphic book about warfare, getting graphic is the whole point, if you ask me, and anyone who is most upset by the cursing is really, really missing that whole point.

But if I owned the F word, my control would go beyond books. Musicians, politicians, butchers, bakers, t-shirt makers, everyone would go through me before they could FU, F’ing A, M-F, F a Duck, Give a Flying F, or Go F themselves.

Such would be my power over the trademarked F word. I’d own the F’ing Nation. Maybe, with this word, the whole F’ing World.

The funny thing is, the F word has become so ubiquitous, it is more aggravating than shocking. It’s use used to mean something: rebellion, outrage, insult, titillation. Now, not so much. It’s so commonplace, it’s effectiveness has entered the land of meh. White noise. Filler. When I watched The Sopranos, for instance, the characters said it so often, I quit hearing it after a while. At times, it was so overused, I had to hear around it to catch the meaningful words.

The more I think about it, maybe someone should trademark the F word, for its own protection. Its presence impedes the conveyance of meaningful language; its overuse kills the shock value. If it was mine, I could lock it in a vault and crack it open for special occasions, such as talking dirty or showing outrage, or allow it to be used effectively and appropriately, such as when writing about war.

Or I could just recognize that trying to own a word is the same as trying to control language and free speech, and I’d leave the F word, and Hun (sic), and well enough, alone.

What do you think? Can language be owned? Am I onto riches with this plan, or should I F off with such a dumb notion?

Tell me about it.


17 thoughts on “I F’ing Own You

  1. I know some people who are going to owe you A LOT of money. Since we have our own vocabulary here in Pittsburgh, maybe I should trademark “yinz.” Or “n’at.” I could make a bundle just strolling through a tailgate party.

    Seriously, it’s ludicrous that someone could trademark common words.


  2. Ramona, could you start me on a payment plan? I don’t think I can come up with the entire amount of what I owe. So f’ing sorry. Thanks! LOL!!!


  3. Oh geez…think what that could do to writers…would we have to pay for the word each time we used it? (Like: first use: $1.00, all additional uses $.50 not to exceed a total of……) Owning the word “kill” alone could net some savvy person a fortune in just a few hours! Why not patent the English language while we’re at it? Hate to disagree with The League, but who outside of NOLA knew what “Who Dat” meant until those Saints came marching down the field and made the nation sit up and take notice? And I believe the French might take issue with the fleur de lis as well :o)


  4. I have not idea what’s going on in Baltimore – so now I have to go find out. I will say, without any fucking reserve, that the NFL has become a standing joke. Not sure what they are good for any more, because they certainly can’t seem to adopt and apply any type of rule consistently.


  5. Since I write gay romance I’m going to take the c**k word. I’ll either be the only one who can use it, or very rich from licencing its usage in any written medium. Private island in the South Pacific here I come.

    But really, this is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.


  6. This is really too ridiculous – and now I’m going to have the google the Baltimore brouhaha to see what it’s all about! I remember a few years back, basketball coach Pat Riley wanted to trademark the word Threepeat. Not sure if he ever did it. Will someone please tell me what yinz means??


  7. Ramona, I read the Sun story with great interest. I’ve been through several trademark/tradename battles in my professional career, and it seems that this gal argues that by her long-time use of the word in the context of her diner, it has acquired “secondary meaning.” That is, when a substantial number of people within the relevant market area associate the word (and the MARK) with the business – what’s important is not just what the owner has done, but how effective it has been. Note the reference to the transit authority – they didn’t just want to use the word “hon,” they wanted to use the beehive and eyeglasses too. Clearly, they knew the woman had generated an identity associated with the word. Note also that she didn’t charge them (why would she? She got enormous publicity out of it).

    Not that this gives her the right to control the use of the word in any conceivable application outside of the diner/kitsche merch realm. She’s got to have used the word in the context of every domain she wishes to protect. And it doesn’t prevent the use of the word in non-commercial contexts, or outside the relevant market area. AND, I would argue, it doesn’t prevent the use of the WORD itself, only the word in a fashion that resembles the MARK in such a fashion that it might cause confusion – i.e., where someone uses the word to make the public believe it is associated with the cafe.

    Think “Life Is Good.”
    Think the smiley face.

    I’m not saying this is all totally sane. I’m just saying that, from the standpoint of trademark/tradename law, she appears to have covered her bases. Note, she’s been using the word in her business since 1992.

    I also note that she appears to have been unusually judicious and generous in how she’s gone about protecting her mark. Compared to a lot of others, anyway.

    Thanks for posting this! I might have to gin up a reply on my own blog.



    1. Pete, thank you for the informative response, or rebuttal, as it were. I agree with you wholey on many of your points. In particular, I see no issue in protecting the mark or imagery she created to advertise her business. If she wants to trademark that–the MARK of the word in very particular design–have at it. She has done that, very effectively, as you point out. But the word itself? She didn’t invent or create it, so my post here (somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but certainly not completely) is to wonder how a person can trademark a word that is already in common use.

      My mention of her situation, and the NFL/Who Dat? issue, was a lead in to the real point of my post, and that was to question the banning of a worthwhile work of art because of cursing. Plus, to have a little fun with owning the F word scenario.

      I hope you do gin up at your own blog–I’ll be sure to read it.


  8. Rosemary, yinz is Pittsburghian for y’all, you guys, you buncha deadbeats….

    At least “threepeat” is a made up word describing a particular activity, but how would he prove he coined it? Even if he did, why the need to own it? I agree, it’s just absurd.


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