A Pet Peeve: ‘Fake’ vs. ‘Counterfeit’

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Translation: counterfeits in good working order?

[Warning: I am about to waste your time. If you keep reading, I don’t want to hear any complaints later on.]

China news is always chock full of stories about the infringement of intellectual property rights, and the words “fake” and “knock-off” and “counterfeit” are thrown around quite loosely. Just for the record, these words have real meaning and should be used with care.

Here’s a lede from a recent China Daily article:

Three men suspected of making and selling fake paint in the outskirts of this city have been detained and are likely to face stiff punishments in the future.

The rest of the article uses “fake” and “counterfeit” interchangeably. Now, what’s the problem here? I don’t know about you, but I don’t know whether we’re dealing with good quality paint that is being sold under an unauthorized trademark or if a container of colored water with starch is being passed off as paint. Something is being faked, but I don’t know whether it is the product, the trademark, or what. These are the things that keep me up at night.

As it turns out, this was real paint, but the bad guys were taking used cans of Dulux and Nippon paint and re-filling them with their own product. So we actually have a trademark/passing off situation here.

So what would have been a better way to describe this stuff? Well, obviously “fake Dulux and Nippon paint” would have conveyed the message adequately enough. But there was another option, the word “counterfeit.” Some folks will tell you that fakes and counterfeits are the same thing, that the words are synonyms for one another. Because I have nothing else to do at the moment, I’m going to try and prove that they are not the same.

Okay, if this wasn’t already mind-numbingly boring for you, it’s about to get worse.

Imagine a Venn Diagram. No, seriously. There’s a big circle labeled “Fakes,” and within that circle there is a smaller circle labeled “Counterfeits.” To put this in words: all counterfeits are fakes, but not all fakes are counterfeits.

Dictionary.com defines a fake as: “anything made to appear otherwise than it actually is,” while a counterfeit is “an imitation intended to be passed off fraudulently or deceptively as genuine.” The key word there is “imitation,” which means a copy, something that resembles or impersonates. That’s the big difference here that’s useful.1

With a fake, we have anything that isn’t genuine for some reason. But with a counterfeit, the fakery involves copying or reproducing something. Let’s go back to the example of the paint.

OK, remember that the paint was fake, insofar as it was not actually Dulux or Nippon paint. As far as we know, it was actual paint, though. However, if the bad guys had put water in those cans, it could still be regarded as fake paint. The reference here is therefore imprecise and potentially offensive to the Language Gods, may their blessings and good fortune shine down upon us.

Anyway, the same does not hold true for the word “counterfeit.” Generic paint being passed off as Dulux or Nippon paint is an example of counterfeiting, as the label/trademark is being copied. However, if these were cans of water being sold, in plain containers, as if they held paint, then there would be no instance of counterfeiting (i.e. nothing was being copied or reproduced).

To sum up: real paint in trademarked cans could be referred to as “fake” or “counterfeit” paint, whereas water put in generic containers and sold as real paint could be referred to as “fake” paint but not “counterfeit.”

Have I convinced you?

{sound of crickets chirping in the background}

Anyone still there? Anyone . . . ?

  1. While you’re at the dictionary, you could also look up the words “esoteric” and “irrelevant,” which might be useful as you read this post. []

3 responses on “A Pet Peeve: ‘Fake’ vs. ‘Counterfeit’

  1. S.K. Cheung

    Venn diagrams. Cool. And I’m a big fan of precision in language.

    I would interpret the sign as “real counterfeit watches”, not to be confused with “fake counterfeit watches” that aren’t watches at all…maybe squirt guns made to look like a Rolex.

  2. stevelaudig

    I was once in a crab shack [a type of cement block restaurant] near Tupelo Mississippi for their famous crab sandwiches. The sandwiches were served in a styrofoam clamshell. Also provided were plastic knives and forks. I wanted to eat this “really” good food with “real” [my meaning was “metal”] utensils. So I asked the waitress for some real utensils. Hesitating enough seconds to get everyone’s attention, she looked at me and said “Honey, everything is real.” I was duly chastened, grammatically speaking.

  3. Jason Patent

    Good stuff. I’m a certified (certifiable?) linguist, and when I was TAing in grad school we had an assignment in which we used “privatives” such as “counterfeit,” “fake,” “imitation,” “artificial,” “false,” etc. to make certain points about semantics. Definitely not soporific material, my friend. The juice of life, this!