When court foiled trade bid to monopolise a word

October 18, 2009 11:42 pm | Updated October 26, 2009 12:53 am IST

A reader’s query about the word “homemaker,” which is increasingly used in preference to “housewife”, prompted me to undertake a quick study. It was worthwhile and enlightening. The reader, Saurabh Sharma, basically asks, “What is the origin of the word and why did it emerge? “ He does not conceal his own preference for the word as a replacement for “housewife,” which he describes as “old-fashioned.”

The meanings given for “homemaker” by British English dictionaries such as Oxford and Cambridge until recently were generally based on the word’s usage in Britain and other European countries. The Chambers’ Twentieth Century Dictionary in its 1901 edition, in fact, showed “homemaker” only as an equivalent of “housewife.” The Chambers 21st Century Dictionary in its 1999 edition gives the meaning as “someone whose main activity is managing the household, especially someone who makes the home more pleasant.” The absence of a gender reference is notable. The 2002 edition of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary gives the meaning of “home maker” (two words) as “a person, esp. a housewife, who creates a (pleasant) home.” The Concise Oxford Dictionary simply says that the word means “a person who manages a home.” There is no reference to either the gender or the quality of service (“pleasant home”).

Household management gender-neutral

It turns out that “homemaker” is a word of North American origin. It came into usage between 1885 and 1890, according to some American dictionaries. The word needs to be seen in the context of what “housewife” meant. Dictionary.com gives the meaning of “housewife” (noun) as “a married woman who manages her own household esp. as her principal occupation” (Origin 1175-1225). “Homemaker” means “1. a person who manages the household of his or her own family, esp. as a principal occupation” and 2. a person employed to manage a household and do household chores for others as for the sick or elderly.” The origin of the word is traced to 1885-1890. The meaning is gender-neutral.

A homemaker is, therefore, a person whose prime occupation is to care of his or her family and/or home. The word of North American origin entered mainstream English but the word is not in common usage in countries other than the United States and Canada. The word emerged to denote those, particularly women, who had to leave their paid jobs and take care of their families. In Britain, the existing word “housewife” served the purpose. Americans preferred to use “homemaker,” which they had coined, because they thought that it was more inclusive than “housewife.” It denoted those who left their jobs to take up work at home — rather than gender or marital status, as in the case of “housewife,” which many saw as offensive.

Why in the first place they were made to give up paid employment has to be seen in the context of the impact of the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, which changed the face of Britain and subsequently other parts of the world, including the United States. The first phase of the Industrial Revolution saw the migration of a substantial number of people, men and women, from villages to towns, to work in factories and textile mills that emerged thanks to the scientific inventions of the period. The second phase of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, spurred on not only by more inventions but also by the capital that had accumulated in the hands of industrialists, had its impact on social, economic, and political conditions, though in a different way. The factories found women workers “misfits incapable of handling huge machines and tools,” and dismissed them. It caused social unrest far and wide. The period also saw the emergence of a strong women’s movement in the United States.

‘Substantial infringement upon common speech’

In a significant judgment disposing of an appeal in 1973, the United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, held: “[Moreover,] monopoly rights in a single common word, as opposed to combinations of different words, involve a much more substantial infringement upon common speech.” The Appeals Court upheld the district court’s direction to the Patent Office to cancel the registration of the service mark, “Homemakers,” issued to the appellant, Homemakers Home and Health Care Services, Inc, which was earlier known as “Homemakers, Inc.” It also reversed the lower court judgment that granted relief to Chicago Home for the Friendless, a no-profit charitable service concern. Chicago Home used the word “homemaker” to describe its services. “Neither of these types of use,” the Appeals Court held, “remotely justifies the conclusion that the term has acquired the requisite secondary meaning to support the common law right to protection of a trade name.” It categorically declared: “We think neither party is entitled to a monopoly in the use of the term ‘homemakers.’” Touché.


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