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.