Sometimes brand names enter common language, and becomes a noun or a verb associated with the activity that the brand is associated with. One example is Xeroxing, instead of photocopying. Another is Kleenex for all sorts of sanitary tissues, and not just the actual tissues under the Kleenex brand. A third example are words derived from the brand Google.

ungoogleableIn English, you google something on the web, when you search for that something using a search engine, regardless which one you actually use. And if you can’t find anything, the thing you’re looking for might be ungoogleable. In Swedish, this process is mirrored, and you ‘googlar’ for information when you’re googling. If you can’t find it, it’s ‘ogooglebar’.

The Swedish Language Council is a semi-official body charged with overseeing the development of the language, and each year they publish reports about it. These words appeared in a list of new words that are at the cusp of entering the dictionaries, and after they published this list they got a mail from Google Inc saying they had to change the definition of the words. They could only mean ‘searches done using the Google Search engine’.

Ann Cederberg, the chairman of the Swedish Language Council, refused and removed the word from the list – and then burst out (Swedish): – Who has authority over language? We do, the language users. We decide together which words should exist and how they should be defined, used and spelled. Language is the result of an on-going democratic process. We all participate in deciding which words to let into the language by choosing the words we use. If we want ‘ogooglebar’ in the language we will use the word, and it is our use that will determine the meaning — not the pressure of a multinational company.

Not even in English does Google have the power to change how words are used between people. The Swedish Language Council only observes and records how people use words; they don’t create the definition, and they don’t impose definitions. What Google asked is, basically, impossible and a cursory investigation into the body would have shown that.

Since this story has been picked up by English speaking media, Google now appear to have entered a new word into English. Googling already existed, but I’ve never heard anyone use ‘ungoogleable’. Now there are hundreds of thousands of hits for this word. I would say that by stepping in it, Google has introduced a new and useful word into the English language. And like with Swedish, Google won’t be able to control how we English-speakers use it. Even the BBC has entered the fray to philosophise what the new word might mean.

Advertisements