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Published: Monday, 4/16/2012

What’s in a name?

Can other iPads do as many things as Apple’s device? If you don’t see anything wrong with that question, welcome to the club. The top-selling tablet’s name is quickly becoming synonymous with the entire class of small computers.

The iPad is not the first product to travel this road. Americans ask for Kleenex when their noses are running, pull out ChapStick when their lips are dry, and reach for a Q-tip to swab a small cut — no matter what brand they actually use.

Crock-Pot, Scotch tape, and Frisbee all once described particular products. Now they’re associated with a class of products, even though they are trademarked.

Sometimes, product names become multiple parts of speech. Xerox is more than the company that made the first photocopy machine. It also is a noun used for any machine that makes photocopies, as well as the copies themselves. And it is a verb that describes the process of making a photocopy.

Familiarity is good — to a point. Apple wants consumers to think iPad when they think of tablet computers.

But too much familiarity is bad. If a brand name is declared legally generic, anyone can use it. Aspirin, heroin, escalator, zipper, and yo-yo no longer enjoy trademark protection. Once the process starts, it is almost impossible to stop.

Juliet asked Romeo in Shakespeare’s tragic love story: “What’s in a name?” A whole lot of brand association if you’re Apple, and danger if the association becomes too generic.

Juliet argued: “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The makers of the Toshiba Excite, Sony Tablet P, and Samsung Galaxy Tab might disagree, for now.

And so might Apple if, as Aesop’s fable about the fox and the lion tells us, familiarity breeds contempt.

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