Ungoogleable—who owns new words as they come into use?



When the Swedish Language Council released a list of words that are not in the Swedish dictionary but are used in common parlance, on it was “ogooglebar” which roughly translates as “ungoogleable” in English, and gave its meaning as “something that cannot be found with a search engine”. Google objected to that definition arguing the word Google is trademarked and therefore if it is ungoogleable it means that it cannot be found on the web by using Google. The interesting part of what is essentially a specific aspect of the internationalisation of language and knowledge transfer is that Google is claiming it has trademarked an activity as well as a company.

When something new is created, words are developed to accommodate that and people will either borrow words or create new ones. Very occasionally we can’t think of anything to call the new thing and a trademark is appropriated fro the purpose, such as Thermos and Hoover in England and Australia. I guess in the USA, to Hoover might mean something political but in England it means to vacuum-clean. Just like you can use a Dyson to hoover the carpets, in practice you don’t need to use Google to google something. In China, you probably wouldn’t and if you need to “ask Professor Google” a question, you would more than likely use a search engine that isn’t in regular dispute with the Chinese authorities, who in turn have no hesitation in shutting it down.

In practice, it is difficult to see how Google would enforce the word’s prohibition because people use the term “to google” all the time, without acknowledging that it is a trademarked term. The Swedish Language Council in its response to Google’s demands to change the definition to include the word Google and to add a Ó pointed out that it was merely recording what the people were saying and they weren’t about to put it into their national dictionary. And anyway, they weren’t going to be told how to organise their own language by Google. Instead they simply removed the word from their list, with the pointed comment that the Swedes will go on using the word whether it is on it or not. Google’s response to that development missed the point entirely: “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”. In fact, Google had threatened litigation – perhaps that is what the company means by taking “routine steps to protect our trademark”. From who? From what?

Actually, I personally have no problem with Google protecting the trademarked name of their search engine because the word googling as I use it doesn’t come from Google at all. It comes from “googly” which in cricketing parlance describes an off-break bowled with a leg-break action. It is very difficult for a batsman to pick from the bowler’s hand and therefore difficult to play. It will come as no surprise then that the term googly has for eons been used to describe a difficult question. It even says so in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary. It is therefore entirely lexio-logical that the word for the activity of finding the answer to a difficult question by way of the internet is googling – nothing to with any one particular search engine but simply the redeployment of a long-established cricketing term, tweaked to do extended service in this digital age. Because the word describes an activity (not a particular company), if I can’t find that answer, it is by definition ungoogleable. That’s the beauty of language development: just add prefixes and suffixes as required.

When I do find that answer to that difficult question by using any one of those internet search engines, I’ve binged it: a term derived not from a search engine but from the time-honoured habit of yelling bingo! when your card is full, and which was later universally used to signify that you have had success in finding the answer to a gnarly problem. And of course by definition you can’t bing anything that is ungoogleable because binging an answer means that it was googleable after all.

To end this post, I’ll bowl you another googly because I’m interested in what googlability might mean for higher education internationally. Given that we want our students to use search engines in a considered way, as part of a pedagogic architecture rather than the sole strategy for information-gleaning and data-gathering, what does it mean if some things are googleable and others are not? Just try googling “ungoogleable” to see what I mean. Has Google® unwittingly opened a Pandora’s box by bringing this to the attention of the world?