I’m not a lawyer and more specifically not an intellectual property (IP) lawyer, but this particular area of the law is one I have been involved in as a patent owner. It’s somewhat weird to think that you can patent ideas such that other folks cannot use them without permission – but there yah go!
The field of IP is, however, a source of great entertainment for those who are not suing or being sued. For example, an 8-year battle between McDonalds and Malaysian fast-food company McCurry (allegedly short for “Malaysian Chicken Curry“) still continues.
One other linguistically based skirmish took place in 2006 between Viacom International (owners of MTV, VH1, Paramount Pictures, and a host of media companies) and sole-proprietor web site Pimp My Snack. I thought of headlining this SpongeBob Whips Sponge Cake but thought better of it.
The alleged infringing site, now called Pimp THAT Snack, is dedicated to the “art” of taking a particular item of food and turning it into a much larger version. I came across it while watching an episode of BBC’s The F-Word and saw one of the presenters create a two-foot wide Jaffa(R) cake – a popular chocolate-coated orange-based cookie.
The use of the word pimp in this situation reflects a modern change to refer to something as being wonderful, great, cool, or desirable. It appears to have been originally used in this way in the 1970’s by African-American males to describe an attitude or swagger, and being pimp was a good thing. It also seems to have been happy to jump across parts of speech from noun (“He’s a pimp“) to adjective (“That’s a pimp outfit you’re wearing”) to verb (“I’ve pimped out my ride”), and even interjection (“Pimping!”)
It’s in its use a verb that the Viacom lawsuit is based. In 2004, MTV launched the show Pimp My Ride, where the mechanics of LA car shop, West Coast Customs, would take a beat-up old car and transform it into something glamorous and desirable. Viacom have clearly decided that they can claim ownership of the phrase Pimp My X, hence the “cease-and-desist” order against the linguistically similar Pimp My Snack.
Legally, I suspect that only the words “pimp my” are covered because changing to Pimp THAT Snack doesn’t seem to have incurred a further law suit. The word “my” is used as a possessive determiner whereas “that” is used as a demonstrative, so clearly it’s true that “possession is nine-tenths of the law.”
Legal arguments aside, the word pimp first makes an appearance in 1607 to refer to someone who “provides means and opportunities for unlawful sexual intercourse.” (OED, Vol XI, p.845)
The famous diarist Samuel Pepys wrote in his 1666 diary on 10th June that, “The Duke of York is wholly given up to his new mistress… Mr. Brouncker, it seems, was the pimp to bring it about.”
It’s thought that the word derives from the 16th century French verb, pimper, which translates as “to render elegant,” and then from the past participle, pimpant, to mean alluring or seductive in appearance or dress. However, this is still open to discussion.
Interestingly, the word is also used dialectically to mean a bundle of firewood or faggot, which first appears in print in 1742 in De Foe’s Tour of Great Britain; “Those small light Bavins, which are used in Taverns in London to light their Faggots, and are called in the Taverns a Brush, and by the Wood-men Pimps.”
Continuing with the word as a noun, in Australian and New Zealand slang a pimp is an informer or tell-tale, while in Welsh dialect it’s a Peeping Tom.
As a verb, it is used intransitively. In the New Yorker magazine on May 26th, 1975, you’ll find “His father (Jack Warden) pimps to add to his income as a taxi-driver.”
Oh, and those of you who are fascinated by bacronyms may want to stop by the Urban Dictionary site to find a few that have appeared for pimp. These include “Person Into Marketing Prostitutes,” “Player In Many Places,” “Put It In My Pocket” and even “Penis In Many People.”
And who says modern youth are not linguistically creative 😉