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TWTS: Tupperware containers are plastic, but are plastic containers Tupperware?

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If you snoop around someone's kitchen, there's a good chance you'll find a cupboard spilling over with plastic containers and lids of various origins. They're great for packing a lunch or storing leftovers, but do you actually refer to them as "plastic containers"?

Our listener Laura Ray, like a lot of us, calls them "Tupperware." However, Ray has noticed that not everyone is on board with that term. Ray says, "Please tell me why people are so uptight when I use the word Tupperware for plastic containers."

It's undeniable that "Tupperware" has become a generic catch-all for plastic containers, regardless of shape, size, or brand. As far as why some don't like this, the keyword is "brand."

"Tupperware" was created in the 1940s by Earl Tupper and is a trademarked brand. The company needs to police that trademark. Therefore, it will continue to remind us of the origins of "Tupperware," and that we're using it "wrong" when we use it generically.

This complicates things for editors. They have to thread their way through the company's desire to police its trademark and their observations of what's actually happening, which is that lots of people use "Tupperware" to refer to a whole range of plastic containers.

The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary define "Tupperware" very carefully, clearly with the aforementioned trademark in mind: "[The] proprietary name of a range of plastic vessels, containers, etc. sold exclusively at parties in private homes to which potential purchasers are invited.

The editors of Merriam-Webster online deal with "Tupperware" differently. They note that the term is trademarked, but their definition is on the generic side: "['Tupperware' is] used for plastic food storage containers with tight-fitting lids."

In the history of English, there are also companies who have failed to successfully protect their trademarks, including "zipper" and "thermos." Others continue to actively police their trademarks, including Xerox and Q-tip.

Laura Ray brought another topic to our attention this week. Ray says, "I hesitate using the word 'incredible' because it seems to be saying 'not credible.'" To hear our discussion on "incredible" listen to the audio above.

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Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.