Michael Erard | Essays

The G Word

Ten years from now, jokey newspaper articles about corporate follies will mention why the Chevy Nova didn't sell in Latin America, the hilarity that ensued when company names (e.g., Pen Island) became URLs, and how Google waded into the mighty river of language one day and drowned.

Google has launched an effort to keep people from using their name as an all-purpose verb. According to Michael Krantz on the Google blog, they still think that saying something like "I googled it" is acceptable if it's the alternative to "I looked it up on Google." If you used some other search engine, however, "google" as a verb is "bad. Very, very bad," writes Krantz. "You can only 'Google' on the Google search engine. If you absolutely must use one of our competitors, please feel free to 'search' on Yahoo or any other search engine."

Pardon me if I don't feel chastised for googling on yahoo. I'd rather celebrate and encourage the linguistic process that turns a name into a verb, and I think Google should too. Here's why.

The meanings of words expand and contract all the time, and one feature of English that makes the language particularly rich is how one part of speech can easily be made into another: verbs become nouns, nouns become verbs, nouns become adjectives. To some this is a messy clusterfrot; to others, it's a source of why English, and language in general, is productive and creative - and, some argue, one reason why English has such power as a global lingua franca.

So turning the names of software or websites into verbs is something that no one has to be taught to do. I've used "friendstered" and "facebooked" to refer to the process of looking up someone on those sites. No one told me to do this; I hadn't heard it before. But my listeners grasped the neologism immediately. In fact, it's a construction that "googling" has made possible, and once this door is open, it can't be shut. So why does Google even want to try?

Part of the reason is that the verby "google" doesn't challenge the brand as much as the use of the verb on other search engines.

I note that the official Google blog says that "google" as a verb is, actually, OK. (Thank you, Google lawyers.) But this signals how powerful this semantic extension is. (Notice, however, that no one says that they googled the refrigerator for something to eat, or googled the street before crossing. Thankfully, it has its limits.)

To protect its brand, Google should harness this power, not constrain it. They should encourage people to turn all those other brand names into verbs, too. Tell people to say "I yahoo!ed" (or however you'd punctuate that) or "I dogpiled." Argue that specifying the search tool is, actually, salient information. Point out that we say "I forked the roast" but "I spooned the sauce." Don't want to be evil? Then don't act as if you can win if you constrain the creative productivity of language.

It may be obvious that I'm reading Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks, which argues that proprietary models don't fit contemporary information and culture production; you get more creativity, more production, and more value with non-proprietary models. I won't summarize his points here, but it strikes me that Google has a sustainable, cheap resource in a certain non-proprietary solution called linguistic creativity. The only downside? You know what they say about idle intellectual property lawyers.

Michael Erard has written in The New York Times, Wired, Slate, and The New Republic about language at the intersection of technology, policy, law and science. He has an MA in linguistics and a PhD in English from the University of Texas. His book about verbal blundering, titled Um..., will be published by Pantheon in 2007.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Technology

Comments [30]

Michael, I agree with the gist of your post, at least from a cultural perspective. Legally, however, Google is only taking due dilligence in the protection of their trademark. We may enjoy playing linguistically with brands, but a corporation can lose its legal rights over a name if it does not defend it against our generalizing impulses. Long before diazepan became a generic drug, for example, Roche Labs fought tooth and nail to keep the word "Valium" from becoming a general term for any tranquilizer. More famously, Xerox has struggled to keep the verb "xeroxing" out of the vernacular.

By the way, slipping brand names into the vernacular is particularly common in Puerto Rico, where you can ask for Double Mint "chicle" (from Chiclets Gum) from any convenience store without getting a funny look.
Jose Nieto

Jose certainly said very well what I was already thinking, but I would like to add two more examples. Coke did the exact same thing in the 1980s because no matter the soda brand they wanted or meant, people were using the term Coke. They could have lost their trademark as a result. Kleenex also had to ask people to stop calling tissues Kleenexes, if I am not mistaken, to avoid losing their trademark.

There's no doubt that Google is trying to protect their trademark as many companies have before them. I think the difference this time is that Google is so dominant that they might actually gain more by "open sourcing" their name rather than trying to hold it in a proprietary way.

As I recall, IBM was in a position to copyright the term "e-Business" back in the 90s and declined to, reasoning that their position would be even stronger if their preferred usage became ubiquitous.

It may also be that resistence is futile: despite what have probably been billions of legal fees, we still talk about "xeroxing" things. It would be interesting to think of a strategy that would leverage the power of the vernacular rather than wasting time fighting it.
Michael Bierut

It would be interesting to think of a strategy that would leverage the power of the vernacular rather than wasting time fighting it.

As far as I understand it, this is not a legal option. The law requires business to actively defend their trademark; as long as they can show that they have taken some kind of action (futile or not), it doesn't matter how common the term becomes: they have exclusive usage of it as a trade name.

Were Google to follow Michael's advice, it would eventually lose its trademark: any business would be able to name itself Google, just like any business can take the name Acme, Superior, etc.

The idea of an open source trademark is intriguing, and perhaps this is an area where the law needs to catch up with cultural practice. (I'm not a lawyer, though, so maybe there's already a way to accomplish this I don't know about.)
Jose Nieto

This post could go on and on sighting product names that have become part of our vernacular: Xerox, Kleenex, Matchbox, Scotch Tape, Velcro...

Long before Google gained the popularity that it has today, and sometime after the internet became a useful tool, Adobe was busy correcting users of its' image manipulation program, Photoshop.

Around 1998 or 1999 a page surfaced on Adobe.com detailing the proper use of the word Photoshop. The content still exists, albiet in a much more Strunk & White meets corporate IP form.

Photoshop is not a verb.

In the physical world, this can create brand perception problems if one hook-and-loop binding system is less quality than the original. However, if everyone is walking around saying just Google it this only hurts its competitors.
Marc Stress

its time for Google to evolve into its next version to keep up with the changes in the internet around it. Google needs to mash up with del.icio.us and allow searches to be tags after they act as key words. maybe there can even be subscribers to your lens or keyword searches? just thinking out loud. then the word "google" wouldn't mean "to search" anymore but what new means of mining the information available online that Google defines.
niti bhan

It's hard to take your article seriously, when you cite a false urban legend about the Nova in your first sentence.

Saying Google-specific verb use is permissible appears to be a step back -- a sensible one, so far as I'm concerned.
Jasper Milvain

You can go ahead and use the verb "to google" to describe searching for something using Yahoo!, but we'll all consider you an idiot for doing so.
Frederick Blasdel

It is interesting that you mentioned this since "googling" also gained ground in German. There, it is even stranger since the word gets embedded completely into the grammatical structure and into various forms of conjugation. And there is even the form "gegoogelt", which is googling in the past tense...

google as a verb only applies to information being seeked efficiently and very effectively. You can't google on yahoo, not because it's a different URL, but because it provides an entirely different culture-a culture of clutter. Ten years from now, people will say "remember when you could just google something?", referring to an archaic method of plain, stripped down simplicity. And their monopolizing success in the future will surely establish that verb into something symbolically much more powerful than anything merely search related.

The post from Google legal has a sense of the pro forma about it. Google knows that a chiding blog post will change no-one's habits, especially while their advertising programs stoke a much stronger opposing linguistic trend.

If you buy sponsored results from Google, you bid on a "keyword" that doesn't have to be a word. It can be a brand, an abbreviation, a phrase, a number or just utter nonsense. At Google, everything is a "word" that can be sold.

Instead of a "word" or a "brand" occupying a privileged place in a protected namespace, (whether that's Webster's or trademark law), AdWords muddles every "word" together in big undifferentiated mess, then ranks them based on one criterion only -- how much advertisers will pay to capture the attention associated with that word.

Google and Yahoo are monetizing the English language (and all others), and it is changing how we think about and use language. I wrote much more about this in What's Language Worth?.

BTW, "chiclet" comes from "chicle", the name for a type of rubber tree, and not the other way around. Santa Anna, winner of the battle of the Alamo and eleven-time president of Mexico, helped commercialize rubber into chewing gum and came up with the brand name "chiclet" while visiting Staten Island in 1867 after being thrown out of Mexico. (He was thrown out of the U.S. too.)
Antony Van Couvering

Michael: [...] one feature of English that makes the language particularly rich is how one part of speech can easily be made into another: verbs become nouns, nouns become verbs, nouns become adjectives.

Do you think this is an inherently good thing? I ask because of the "rich(ness)" comment, that goes beyond just calling out the feature. I won't go so far as "verbing weirds language," but what do you think of podiuming, for example?

Jose Nieto: you can ask for Double Mint "chicle" (from Chiclets Gum) from any convenience store without getting a funny look.

Chicle is a thing, not a brand.

There is of course the word of mouth value for having everyone say they Googled something even if they looked it up on a search engine other than Google.

All they really need to do is protect their trademark enough that other search engines cannot use it. In other words, they need to prevent Yahoo from changing the button that says "Web Search" to "Google it" and they'll be fine.
Stephen Macklin

Earth to Google: Good luck with that.
Beerzie Boy

By not pursuing other uses of the word google, Google risks the courts allowing other search engines to market themselves as 'googles'. They have to show that they took specific steps to protect the word, or they lose the tradename.

In Coke's case, they did lose some protection as a result of not pursuing common usage of lower-case: the word cola was ruled to be a descriptor.

My favorites are always the ones that people don't even realize are tradenames:
TV Guide
Seeing Eye Dog (yep!)

And there is a long list of tradenames that lost legal protection, including:

corn flakes

Looking at the above lists, it would appear that generic use presages commoditizing. I think it's probably reasonable to discuss the value/cost of allowing one's tradename to assume generic use. But to lambast Google for doing what any good business should do seems a bit silly.

By the way, check out my new site - it's a designobserver.


Chicle is a thing, not a brand.

I'll be damned, you're right -- just checked my Larusse. I (and my peers) had always assumed that the word came from the brand because a)the Manilkara tree does not grow in Puerto Rico, so we don't use the term 'chicle' in it's original context; and b) Chiclets was the first brand of gum sold in Puerto Rico. Guess we're not as colonized as I thought.
Jose Nieto

It's hard to take your critcism seriously when you don't realize that the author is not "citing" the legend of the Chevy Nova, but rather has already linked over to an article that describes the urban legend as false. I think you owe Michael a gentlemanly handshake of apology.

You kids play nice now, ya hear!

First of all, thanks to MB, JH and WD for the opportunity to share these ideas on DO, which I very much admire.

No one has offered an argument for why this non-proprietary strategy shouldn't be at least part of Google's strategy to protect its brand. In the comments people focused on two main types of challenges: through direct co-optation by another company, and through semantic expansion in the vernacular. The open source strategy I posed was meant to handle the second instance. It doesn't obviate lawsuits, either, so if another search tool puts "google it!" on its buttons, Google can and should still send in the lawyers.

On the other hand, if brand dilution in the vernacular is the aggregate effect of instances where the brand's name is spoken or written in a generic sense, then reducing the number of generic instances protects the brand. (It also provides less fodder for the other companies' lawyers, who will certainly want to argue that your name is now generic.) You can reduce the frequency of generic uses via letters from lawyers & lawsuits, but given all the examples of brand names (Xerox, Thermos, Kleenex, etc.) turned to generic words, this doesn't seem promising. What does seem promising (and unexplored) is reducing the frequency, not by discouraging the generic use, but by encouraging the specific, so that Google says, hey, you yahoo on Yahoo, you ask on Ask, but you only google on Google.

Jose, how is this NOT defending the word "google" against generalizing impulses?

I assume this linguistic option would be cheaper; is this not accurate? (Perhaps it would be impossible to know, really.) I also assume that it would enhance Google's stature, because it reflects their values; is this also not accurate?

The biggest weakness of the argument, which I figured someone might point out, is that Google would, in effect, be telling people what to do with other companies' names, potentially opening themselves to lawsuits. Even so, I had the response worked out just in case: Google could simply recommend the generic linguistic process without making explicit mention of other firms.

To Su: by "richness" I mean a) a productive linguistic capacity that b) can anyone, anywhere can use for their own ends. Inherently it's value neutral. But I would say who uses this capacity does matter. I like that skiiers & other athletes came up with "podium" as part of their slang; I understand that announcers pick up the slang because they're in that environment and want to feel "in," though they shouldn't have used the word in their broadcast, unless they were doing a story on athlete slang; it puzzles me that people choose to push back against the world on these matters -- then again, I push back on things that would probably puzzle you.

I might also add that I'm glad that airline pilots, surgeons and the soldiers in the missile silos don't make up words on the job.
Michael Erard

Is the story about the Kodak naming true.
Asked about the name "Kodak", George Eastman replied,
"Philologically, the word Kodak is as meaningless as a child's first 'goo'—terse, abrupt to the point of rudeness, literally bitten off by firm and unyielding consonants at both ends, it snaps like a camera shutter in your face. What more would one ask!"
stealing beauty

On a lighter note and in refernce to Pen Island and that kind of URL nightmare, here is a list of some more Top 10 Worst Company URLS.
ronan McDonnell

A trademark owner's lawyers don't have to eliminate the use of the trademark as a generic term, they have to show that they have done due diligence. That means they don't have to change the language or stop the language from changing. It means that they have to be able to show that they objected strongly and forcefully when confronted with their trademark being co-opted. Any effort to encourage the use of the word as a quasi-generic could be construed as just the opposite.

Even if you assume it has no other significance, think what it would do to Google stock price if headlines all over the world announced that I was bringing suit to have their trademark abolished, thus allowing me to offer GunnarGoogle service and any search engine to run ads like "Google it at Yahoo!" or "Go to Dogpile for the best Google." Even if the suit turned out to be unsuccessful, merely looking like it had a shot it would cost them many millions of dollars in stock value.
Gunnar Swanson

you should all see this photo from istanbul:

errr... and google definitely shouldn't

Gunnar, you've made my original point in a much more eloquent way (as would be expected).

Michael, thanks for the thoughtful respond to the posts. I still think that there's a major legal hurdle to the open-source brand approach you suggest: the fact that a trademark has become a common use verb (without clear objection from the owner) would make it impossible for a company to defend it's exclusive use as a trade name. You just can't have it both ways: either you own it, or it's free to use.

Nevertheless, I can think of one example that approaches what you describe: podcasting. The term is derived from a trademark, the owner of which has taken little action stop its use (in fact, Apple embraced the term, making it part of their iTunes software). When another company tried to register the word as their own trademark, however, Apple took action. It remains to be seen whether Apple will be successful in carving out a niche for the term ("you can use podcast as a descriptor, but not as trademark"). In any event, I believe this example is reminiscent of your suggestion for Google.
Jose Nieto

Jose, if you look at the Google blog post, you see that Google has itself cleared the use of "google" as a verb to describe the use of Google, the search engine.

Usage: 'Google' as verb referring to searching for information on, um, Google.
Example: "I googled him on the well-known website Google.com and he seems pretty interesting."
Our lawyers say: Well, we're happy at least that it's clear you mean searching on Google.com. As our friends at Merriam-Webster note, to "Google" means "to use the Google search engine to find information about (as a person) on the World Wide Web."

As I read this, Google has branded its name, and wants to brand the verb, "google," too. I still don't see how this sets up the situation you describe, since Google itself is allowing use of "google" as a verb (albeit still a branded one).

Michael Erard

From Marketplace.org and Kai Ryssdal: It seems like there's a sip of irony in Starbuck's objection to the licensing of regional names. This is really something from the company which uses the word venti, with an r in a circle next to it, to describe its largest cup of coffee. I guess they find it OK to register the Italian word for twenty.


And companies already copyright genes and molecules, too. Heavy!

joe moran

Sticking-it-to-the-man aside, I think it's unfortunately imprecise language to use "google" (vb. trans.) when not using Google (n. prop.)

If I'm "googling something on Yahoo," I'm not googling; I'm yahooing. The evolution of the vernacular is still a rather poor excuse for vague speech -- especially when there's no impediment to converting anything else we use to a transitive verb.

I can see boths sides of the coin, but from a practical standpoint, how can they expect to have any kind of effect on how people talk?
Fine Art Guy

iPhone is available with Cingular ONLY!?
And what if I am stuck under contract with a carrier OTHER
than Cingular but still want a iPhone?
Well, the only solution
I could fine was http://www.Cellswapper.com -
they get you out of any cell phone contract!
Roger Smith

iPhone is available with Cingular ONLY!?
And what if I am stuck under contract with a carrier OTHER
than Cingular but still want a iPhone?
Well, the only solution
I could fine was http://www.Cellswapper.com -
they get you out of any cell phone contract!
Roger Smith

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