According to the Dictionary of the Real Academia Española, tartan is the woollen checked fabric that is characteristic of Scotland. But it also includes a second definition: “Material composed of a rubber and asphalt mixture, very resistant and smooth, used as the surface of athletics tracks.” The dictionary also specifies that this meaning corresponds to a registered trademark. Is this true? Is tartan a trademark?
Mexico, Scotland and a multinational organization are part of the history that transformed the trademark into a commonly used term. Let’s go back half a century to further examine the etymology of the word tartan.
To start putting the pieces together, we need to begin in 1968, the year of the Olympic Games in Mexico. The University Olympic Stadium chose Tartan flooring for the track surface; “Tartan” was the trade name chosen by the U.S. company 3M for the polyurethane flooring it had developed specifically for the sport. This track proved to be revolutionary: The Mexico City Games marked the first time that the Olympics had used a track made from synthetic flooring rather than from volcanic ash.
Athletes broke 22 world records during the 1968 Games, thanks also to Mexico City’s high altitude. The track’s impact resulted in “Tartan” becoming a generic term for all synthetic flooring used at track events. Although 3M stopped producing the track material decades ago, the term tartan remains in the sports lexicon half a century later.
This is where the link between tartan, Scotland and the RAE’s first definition of the term — the one related to the checked fabric — come into play. The names of several 3M products are associated with the term “Scotch” (Scottish), so much so that a term that was used as a pejorative in the United States in the 1920s (it was used to mean “stingy”) has become a company hallmark.
As with Coca-Cola, Kleenex and Xerox, several 3M trademarks have become common terms, one of which is Post-it. Some of the company’s brands that make explicit reference to that connection with Scotland include Scotch adhesive tape, Scotch-Brite scrub pads and tartan.
So, is it correct to use the term “tartan” to refer to any athletics track? Yes and no. From a colloquial point of view, any sports enthusiast would understand what the speaker means when using that term. But the literal definition in the RAE dictionary says it refers to an existing registered trademark and is limited to “material composed of a mixture of rubber and asphalt.”
Years of research and development has led to the adoption of new, more efficient, technically advanced and sustainable materials in modern synthetic athletics tracks. Consequently, it would not be correct to use “tartan” to describe any athletics track.
Although “tartan” is still present in the current 3M product catalog, it now refers to packing tape.