What’s in a word? As it turns out, quite a lot. The vast majority of words in our language, including trademarked terms, signify a variety of conceptual meanings and senses. This idea of splintered definition— described in the psycholinguistics literature as “semantic ambiguity” and offered in two flavors: “homonymy” (divergent and unrelated meanings) and “polysemy” (divergent yet related senses)—is underrepresented in trademark law. As a result, there has been a proliferation of legal doctrines that fail to accurately describe our linguistic lives, most notably including dilution and genericness. This Article draws on psycholinguistics literature on semantic ambiguity resolution to highlight these doctrinal failures and proposes several ways in which the law might better account for polysemy and homonymy. In addition to bringing the law into line with the lived experience of language, these changes have the added benefit of promoting the communicative and competitive interests at the heart of trademark law.

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