Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

This morning, I stumbled Adobe Systems Incorporated’s Permissions and Trademark Guidelines. This is basically Adobe’s way of dictating how it wants people to use and display its trademarks. Many companies have these, but Adobe’s policies regarding Photoshop are more restrictive (and thus, more laughable) then most.

Photoshop “to photoshop” out of your lexicon

They begin the Photoshop section with the phrase “Trademarks are not verbs”. Here, they’re objecting to the ubiquitous use of “to photoshop”, meaning “to use Adobe® Photoshop® software or similar image manipulation software to manipulate an image”. This prohibits phrases like “Dude, that is so photoshopped” or “the printing company photoshopped it for us”. This seems to be a common theme, with paralells to Xerox fighting to stop us from Xeroxing documents, but it’s still a bit crazy.

I think it’s ridiculous that they think they can stop this usage. One of the unifiying features of human language is our lazyness, and our desire to only do the minimum amount of speaking necessary. To think that we’ll gladly surrender “Could you photoshop this real quick?” in favor of “Could you enhance this image using Adobe® Photoshop® software real quick?” is completely insane.

The fact of the matter is that the verbed form is more versatile as well. In English, we can use other particles to change the meanings of an established verb, and “to photoshop” is no exception. One can photoshop something in, photoshop it out, photoshop something away, and so on. However, one cannot “enhance using Adobe® Photoshop® software out the guy in the background”. Instead, we’re asked to “enhance an image using Adobe® Photoshop® software in such a way that the guy in the background is removed from the picture”. Yeah, we’re going to do that, Adobe. Sure thing.

Adobe doesn’t know what they want

The real beauty comes in that the next heading: “Trademarks are not nouns”. Adobe, you’re in blatant violation of your own trademark policies on this very website.

…and Photoshop is one of Adobe’s most valuable trademarks…
…Adobe and Photoshop are either registered trademarks or trademarks…
…Get everything in Photoshop CS3 plus tools for editing 3D and motion-based content and performing image analysis….

In each of the above phrases, “Photoshop” is acting as a noun. So, I don’t think noun-like usage is what Adobe’s really worried about. Let’s look at their explanation:

CORRECT: The image pokes fun at the Senator.
INCORRECT: The photoshop pokes fun at the Senator.

It looks like what they’re really trying to ban is “Photoshop-Related Metonymy”. Metonymy is where a commonly associated element (or part of something) is used to refer to the whole thing. For instance, “The White House was silent on the corruption charges” or “The press is more and more biased every day” are both metonymic expressions, using parts of these establishments to represent the whole.

So, although I suspect they have no problem with noun form use (“Photoshop® is exceptionally good at what it does”), they’re worried about metonymy with manipulated images, like “Photoshops are causing more scandals every day for the embattled prince”. Perhaps they should be clarifying that on their website, lest they be forced to sue themselves.

Other miscellaneous escapes from reality

According to Adobe, “Trademarks may never be used as slang terms”. This is just charming because it’s an attempt to control casual usage. I can understand their not wanting an ad campaign with “Help Photoshoppers Photoshop better”, but trying to regulate casual conversation shows Adobe to be out of touch with not only language usage, but with reality.

Finally, I’m not sure I buy this “Proper Adjectives” thing. To claim that “Adobe Photoshop” is incorrect and meaningless without adding “software” is a bit ridiculous. Whether or not they want to pretend that Photoshop isn’t a noun, it won’t really change how speakers view and use the term. It just makes them seem stodgy and delusional.

Adobe Systems Incorporated v. Continental Drift

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: A speaker (or grammarian) trying to stop language from changing is like a gardener trying to stop continental drift.

Adobe can write this up, and heck, they can even try and enforce parts of it with marketing and high-profile cases. However, I hope they realize the folly of trying to change established words and constructions, especially when the ones suggested are longer and less useful than the originals. No matter what they do, in everyday speech, people will photoshop images, those images will be photoshops, and photoshopping will be an entertaining pastime on the internet.

Know, however, that we’re not doing it to hurt you, Adobe. Our language is a language of love for your software, and the fact that “Photoshop” is so ubiquitous is a sign of our respect for your work. So, dearest Adobe, please stick to manipulating images, and leave the language manipulation to us.


Have a question, comment, or concern about this post? Contact me!