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Please don’t “google”, says Google

Appropriate: I ran a Google search to check out that guy from the party.
Inappropriate: I googled that hottie.

This, believe it or not, was not intended to be a joke. It was in a series of legal letters from Google, the company, itself to media organisations, clearly concerned about the way its name is becoming used. And yes, that was the word “hottie” in official correspondance. The other of its examples of usage was:

Appropriate: He ego-surfs on the Google search engine to see if he’s listed in the results.
Inappropriate: He googles himself.

I’m sensing a theme here:

Appropriate: Long-winded way of communicating an uncomplicated idea verbally.
Inappropriate: Saying it simply.

You could almost feel sorry for them—having made a name in the world, they are eager to protect it—but by “almost”, I mean, not quite. Google is really just the latest of trademarks to progress into normal language use: “Coke”, “Xerox”, “Sellotape”, “Frisbee”, “Vivid” have all made it in similar ways. All are, or were, outstandingly successful companies. All were pioneers in their respective fields. All would have complained, to some extent.

Where “google” differs is that “google” has become officially recognised as a verb. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines it as “to use the Google search engine to obtain information about (as a person) on the World Wide Web”. You could argue, therefore, that Google has more reason to worry, fret, and be outraged than any of its predecessors.

However, I would think otherwise. Even though Google is a trademark, its use as a verb in everyday speech shows how much of a mark it’s made on this world. We, the users of the Internet, use Google so much, for so many things, that we no longer search for things on the Internet—we google things. To google is a part of our everyday lives, something almost unavoidable. Of course, part of it’s because it’s far less of a mouthful to say “I googled that chick I met last night” than “I ran an Internet search using the Google search engine to find out about that girl I met last night”, but we also chose “google” over, say, “askJeeves”, or, I dunno, I don’t even know any other search engines because I don’t use any. Anyway, Google should be proud.

They choose the other route. The route that tells us, please don’t google your English assignment, run an search on it using Google. The big serious listen-to-me route that is nothing like the colourful, vibrant Google we all know.

But a top-down attempt to enforce, or for what amounts to the same thing, combat, language change has about as much chance of success as a snowball in hell—just ask the French government about its 1990 spelling reforms. People use language how they want to use it. Google can kick and scream all they want, but realistically, “google”’s morphing into a verb is only a natural part of language change that, in the foreseeable future, will remain part of the standard English vocabulary.

Related Links

  • NZ Herald: To Google or not to Google? It’s a legal question (14 August)
  • The Carpetbagger Report: Google (TM, ©, all rights reserved) fights the dreaded ‘verb effect’ (12 August)
  • The Seattle Times: Use Google, but please don’t "google," search engine says (6 August)
  • Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary: “google”
  • Wikipedia: Reforms of French orthography
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