The ability to trademark a word or variation of a word depends on its likelihood of being confused with any pre-existing trademark. A variation of a common term that makes it a unique identifier of a line of goods or services might increase its chances of being accepted as a trademark. A variation of a competitor's trademark that only changes the spelling is not likely to pass muster in courts or when attempting to register the mark.
Trademarks submitted for registration generally fall into four categories, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Fanciful or arbitrary marks make the strongest trademarks. Fanciful marks are invented words that have no known meaning. Arbitrary marks are actual words that have no association with the goods or services they protect. Xerox is an example of a fanciful trademark. Apple as a brand of computers is an arbitrary trademark. Other categories in decreasing strength are suggestive, descriptive and generic marks. Word variations could show up in any of these categories.
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Fanciful or Arbitrary
A word variation that is distinctive could qualify as a fanciful or arbitrary mark. A food service could become known as Gorilla Gourmet, using the name as an arbitrary mark. The company could also use a variation of the word gorilla to become G'rilla Gourmet as a play off the word grill, qualifying the name as a strong trademark for being both fanciful and arbitrary.
Variations in Other Categories
A suggestive mark suggests but does not actually describe the connection to or qualities of a line of goods or services. Variation of a word in such a trademark can help the mark stand out as a name rather than merely a phase, even if the variation is common such as "N" for "and." Descriptive marks are weak in that they directly describe the goods or services meant to be protected, and generic terms, such as Best Auto Service will rarely gain legal status as a trademark. A variation of a descriptive or generic word, such as "H2Otown" for Watertown, might be enough to make it distinctive for a trademark.
Variations of Existing Marks
Some businesses try to play off a competitor's success by using a mark that's only a variation of the competitor's original trademark. Such a variation is an attempt to confuse a buyer into thinking that a line of goods is actually from an established brand when the goods are actually knock-offs. In such cases, courts can find that the variation is an infringement on the original trademark, levying fines and damages against the infringing party.