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TWTS: To Zoom or not to Zoom?


Cars, planes, cameras and people have been zooming around for decades with a lower-case "z."

These days, with so many of us working from home, many of us find ourselves doing a different kind of zooming -- one that may require a capital letter.

The generic verb for what we've been doing is video-conferencing. Since the video-conferencing platform Zoom has exploded in popularity during the pandemic, we often find ourselves talking about "Zooming" in the same way that we might "Xerox" a document or "Google" a search term.

What we're talking about is a process linguists call genericization. That's when a trademarked term or brand name becomes generic. Companies aren't usually fans of this process -- they want people to recognize trademarks and minimize their generic use in official or published documents. However, we do it anyway.

This process leads to questions over which terms get capitalized. Kleenex, Band-Aid, and Q-Tip are all trademarks that require capitalization, but for how long? Granola, escalator, dumpster, linoleum and thermos are all former trademarks that are now considered generic terms.

When used as nouns, style-guides agree that trademarks like “Google” should be capitalized. Verbs are trickier. For example, Merriam Webster offers two variants of the verb form of Google, one with capitalization and one without. The American Heritage Dictionary plays it a little safer and provides the noun "Google," capitalized," and notes the derivative verb form.

The Chicago Manuel of Style has offered some guidance on Zoom. For now, it says that the verb “Zooming” should be capitalized when talking about the video-conferencing platform.

The manual also notes that the verb "zoom" can refer to something completely different from video conferencing, and the capital letter helps make that distinction. That way if your co-worker is complaining about flies zooming around their head, you’ll know what they mean.

However, if the flies are in fact "Zooming," you should point out to your co-worker that it's rude to horn in on someone else's video-conference.

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.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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