Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

20 Pounds of Lego

Posted by Neal on March 29, 2005

I’ve always liked playing with Legos (which, by the way, I pronounce /lεgoz/, not /legoz/), so I was naturally drawn to this article in one of the alternative newspapers last week. It’s about professor Paul Janssen of Ohio State University, who has on the order of 2 million Legos, and has used them to create scale models of buildings in downtown Columbus. What’s the linguistic point of all this? This paragraph, where Janssen talks about his childhood:

“By myself, in my room, with my 20 pounds of Lego, I would build until I used every single brick I had,” said Janssen, who cringes when he hears people casually refer to the pieces as “Legos.”

Well, first things first: I like Legos. Legos are fun. Doug and Adam like playing with Legos, too. Legos, Legos, Legos!

OK, now that I’ve had my fun, I’ll stipulate that Lego is a brand name, and that not just anything should be referred to as Legos. I myself don’t like hearing Tyco blocks or MegaBlocks called Legos. They’re imitators, not bad to play with, but definitely not the real thing. But why is it bad to use Lego as a count noun? Is it because Lego is supposed to be used only as a brand name, as in Lego building bricks? If that’s what’s going on, then Janssen should get off his high horse, because turning Lego into a mass noun, as in 20 pounds of Lego, is a violation, too. And I bet I cringed more when I read 20 pounds of Lego than Janssen does when he hears two million Legos. He made it sound as if there’d been a fire and all his Legos had melted into one big goopy mass.

So what is the Lego company’s official policy on the word? From their website:

Please help us to protect our brand name:

  • The word LEGO must not be used generically–nor should it be used in the plural form or the possessive, e.g. “LEGO’s.”
  • When the LEGO brand name is used as a noun, it must never stand alone. It must always be accompanied by another noun. For example: LEGO set, LEGO products, LEGO company, LEGO play materials, LEGO bricks, LEGO universe, etc.

Just as I thought. Not that I’m going to follow any of it. They also want me to write Lego in all caps, but offer no reason for doing so. Lego isn’t an acronym (as they admit in their company history), so it just seems to be their personal preference. And as for forbidding any building bricks, even their own, to be called Legos, that just seems to be overkill. I wonder if they’re asking this knowing that nobody will do it, but hoping that they will at least keep Lego identified with their own product–kind of like asking your chronically late lunch date to meet you 20 minutes earlier than you actually plan on eating (see Glen’s post for more on that). But in any case, if you actually want to follow this corporate line, Lego as a mass noun and Lego as a count noun are equally bad.

UPDATE: Perhaps I have been too harsh on Prof. Janssen. His use of Lego as a mass noun sounded so bad to me that I assumed it must be the affectation of a Lego-elitist who was (first of all) taking the whole brand-name protection policy much too seriously and (second) not even understanding how the Lego corporation actually wanted the word to be used. “The Lego corporation says I mustn’t call these things Legos,” I imagined him thinking. “I hear and obey. I will refer to them only as Lego!” But to my surprise, it turns out that there are at least two speakers (commentators ACW and Rachel) for whom Lego is just as natural as a mass noun as it is for me as a count noun. So maybe Janssen is just one of these speakers, and his adverse reaction to hearing Lego as a count noun is comparable to the reaction of someone who doesn’t like hearing this data is instead of these data are. Even if that’s the case, the writer of the article implies that the complaint goes deeper than that. Earlier, the article talks about Janssen’s views on the “ethics” of building with Legos (no glueing allowed, no filing down pieces to fit where they’re not designed to fit), and the paragraph I quoted seems to be in the same vein.

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12 Responses to “20 Pounds of Lego”

  1. ACW said

    “Lego”, in my mental lexicon, is firmly a mass noun, and it feels just as funny to me to hear you talk about “legos” as it did to hear my great-aunt offer to cut my “hairs”.

    I’m not saying I’m right in any deep sense; we’re all descriptivists here, no? I’m just saying.

  2. language said

    Whereas seeing it used as a mass noun looks weird to me. In any event, I’m not clear why the good professor is so eager to enforce the corporate dictates of Lego (maker of fine Legos).

  3. Rachel said

    I tend to use it primarily as a mass noun; using it as a count noun isn’t wrong to me, just dispreferred. But my roommate thinks using it as a mass noun is weird. :)

  4. Ingeborg S. Nordn said

    Having to refer to “X-brand whatever-product” in ordinary conversation, regardless of the brand and product involved, strikes me as unnecessarily picky: as long as we’re not trying to confuse or defraud the public, what’s the harm? Trademark police aside, though, I’ve always thought of “Lego” as a count-noun; it’s not as if the plastic used for the blocks had some special formula used for nothing else.

  5. Anonymous said

    Without a doubt, the company’s reason for asking you to use “Lego” is so that it doesn’t become a generic word, and thus unprotectable under trademark law, ala xerox and fritos.

    Under the law, it is more important that a company try to prevent a mark from becoming generic than that the mark actually is generic.

  6. Estel said

    I too only ever use “lego” as a mass noun; using it as a count noun sounds very odd to me, though I enncounter it reasonably often.

  7. Nix said

    In the UK and Australia is is called Lego whether you have one piece of 2 billion pieces.

    I guess for the Americans you don’t use the S in Maths so you had tio stick it elsewhere and put in on the end of Lego to become Legos.

    So for mine it is Maths and Lego and not Math and Legos.

  8. I find all the fuss about whether LEGO is a countable noun or an uncountable one amusing. Maybe it’s becoming both.

  9. [...] informed me that you can see the picture rendered in Legos — or depending on your dialect, rendered in Lego — [...]

  10. Graham said

    i don’t see your problem with the professors used of “20 pounds or lego”.

    given that this is an uncountable noun then refering to it by weight should be perfectly acceptable. if not how the hell should we refer to a kilo or sugar or a pint of milk?

  11. website said

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  12. qwandor said

    The Oxford dictionary lists Lego as a mass noun: http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/Lego
    Using it as a countable noun sounds very strange to me.

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