How To Ungoogle The Dictionary

We all know that Google’s influence on our everyday lives is huge, and Wordability has written in the past about how it affects language. But rather than allowing that influence to just exist naturally, the technology giant has now taken action to directly influence a dictionary definition. The result has been that lexicography has shot into public consciousness around the world.

Google’s beef is with the Language Council of Sweden, which included the word “ogooglebar” or “ungoogleable” in its list of top words of 2012. The definition given was ‘something which cannot be found with a search engine’. However, Google objected, saying that the definition should only refer to being unable to find something when using Google, rather than any generic search engine.

Not wishing to be dictated to, or to enter into lengthy legal proceedings, the Language Council removed the word completely, while launching a robust defence of the word and criticising Google for their stance.

Sweden seems to be a hotbed of language innovation, and those who look after the language there need to be applauded for their reaction to this. Of course Google cannot dictate what should or shouldn’t be in a dictionary. Frankly they should be flattered that their company name has entered the hallowed turf trodden by Hoover or Portakabin, trade names which have crossed the divide from a single brand to become the generic term for anything in that genre. When the brand becomes the definitive word, surely it is a sign for those behind the brand that the battle is won.

Anybody using ungoogleable, or indeed Google as a verb, is using it in a generic form. Yes, most of us actually use Google itself when performing a web search, but I doubt we are thinking about that fact if we use the word, we are using it to mean search the internet. I was surprised to see that official definitions of “to Google” mention Google in them, rather than the generic act. Presumably others have been wary of the Google trademark police.

But I think the most telling thing of all is a quote given by Google to the BBC. A spokesman said: “While Google, like many businesses, takes routine steps to protect our trademark, we are pleased that users connect the Google name with great search results.” And maybe that is the point. Maybe the company is actually quite pleased when Google is used to mean generic searching, but steps in when any negative definition comes along. But the incident has not served at all to link the company with great search results in people’s minds. In fact, it simply reinforces the view that Google controls everything we do. And is now seeking to influence the meaning of words. Which, of course, it can’t.

2 thoughts on “How To Ungoogle The Dictionary

  1. Charles Levine @word_dude

    You write, ‘I was surprised to see that official definitions of “to Google” mention Google in them, rather than the generic act. Presumably others have been wary of the Google trademark police.’ (The foregoing is linked to Oxford Dictionaries Online which indeed mentions Google in its definition of the generic verb.) But many other dictionaries strike a better balance. For example, (for whom I consult) defines the transitive verb as: ‘(often lowercase) to search the Internet for information about (a person, topic, etc.): We googled the new applicant to check her background.’ The Collins World English Dictionary has for the generic verb ‘to Google’: ‘– to search for (something on the internet) using a search engine. — to check (the credentials of someone) by searching for websites containing his or her name.’

  2. Marc Cohen (@spanielhead)

    My understanding is that they object to things like this because they don’t want google to become a generic term. If it does, they lose their right to defend the trademark because anyone can say they were referring to the generic term.

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