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Last Updated: Friday, 20 June, 2003, 13:20 GMT 14:20 UK
Google calls in the 'language police'
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online

Google logo
Note the "TM"
Google is now a verb, meaning to search. It sounds like the ultimate compliment to the company, so why do its lawyers want to keep the word out of our dictionaries?

Google is best known as an internet search engine but its tentacles have spread to range of other web applications.

There's Google News - a news portal; Google Webquotes - a database of sayings; Google Glossary - a catalogue of words and phrases; and the spin-off shopping site Froogle.

Yet amid all this activity there is one thing Google is trying to steer clear of - the dictionary.

The effect is to suppress a range of common words and therefore censor part of the English language
Sidney I Landau

In the US Google has mutated into a verb. Singletons will "google" a new boyfriend or girlfriend - run their name through a search engine - to check them out. People now talk about "googling" and "being googled".

On an episode of ER, shown on Channel 4 in the UK this week, colleagues of Dr Susan Lewis talked of "googling" her blind date.

And singer Robbie Williams says US women who initially reject his amorous advances often have a change of heart when they run his name through a search engine.

"I've since been told: 'That girl googled you because she knows who you are now.' So hurrah for googling!" says Williams. "Science got me laid."

Search and destroy

But what's good news for Robbie is becoming a headache for folk at Google HQ. The company's lawyers are trying to stamp out this sort of language.

Robbie Williams
Understandably a fan of internet search engines
Paul McFedries, who runs the lexicography site Word Spy, received a stiffly worded letter from the firm after he added "google" to his online lexicon.

The company asked him to delete the definition or revise it to take account of the "trade mark status of Google". He opted for the latter.

Google's problem is one of the paradoxes of having a runaway successful brand. The bigger it gets, the more it becomes part of everyday English language and less a brand in its own right.

Just as we talk about "hoovering" instead of vacuuming, people have started to say "google" to mean search. The word has become an eponym.

Talk isn't cheap

It's like an inversion of that Oscar Wilde saying: "There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

Hoover failed to clean up on its trade mark
Companies like Xerox, Kleenex, Portakabin and Rollerblade have teams of lawyers furiously firing off letters to media which mistakenly use their name in a generic sense.

It's all about protecting their brand, says Elizabeth Ward, a trade mark lawyer. "You have to see it in context of how much they spend on advertising. If you have a big, big brand such as Google you have to say what's that brand actually worth.

"Once it becomes just a word, it erodes the value of that brand."

For the likes of Google, Hoover's experience is a cautionary tale - it has essentially lost the exclusive right to its name.

The language police

"Its trade mark has not been removed," says Ms Ward, "but it seems that if Hoover were to contest its use as a generic then a court would remove it."

Police on in-line stakes
Definitely not Rollerblades
In fact, our language is littered with words that once used to be brands. Escalator, pogo, gunk and heroin are all examples, as is tabloid, which was originally registered by a drugs company in 1884 and came to mean "small tablet".

But the current obsession on building brand status has ushered in a new phase in language. So much so, that experts now fear trade mark lawyers are trying to police the otherwise natural evolution of the English diction.

Lexicographer Sidney I Landau, says dictionary publishers in the US are being bullied by lawyers to leave out words that are being freely spoken on the street.

"Dictionaries should reflect the use of words and their authors shouldn't be afraid to identify that and define it as generic," says Mr Landau.

Seize the moment

"In future the effect might be to mislead people by only giving the trade mark meaning. The effect is to suppress a range of fairly common words and therefore censor part of the English language."

Ken Storey of the Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys rejects the idea his members are acting as censors on what we say.

"Everyone has the right to protect a trade mark," he says.

In Britain people may feel they want to seize the opportunity for free speech while they still can. The verb "to google" has yet to take off on this side of the Atlantic, but it seems Brits could use it with impunity for the time being, says Liz Ward.

That's because in Europe, at least, Google's trade mark is still pending.

Some of your comments so far:

Google's concern is misplaced. To "google" is to use the Google service. It is not applied as a generic term for searching the web, and will not be as long as the Google search engine exists. Anyone using "google" as a verb only reinforces the brand, they don't dilute it.
Mark Roberts, UK

This is another example of a proper noun becoming a common noun. For example, I've just had a sandwich, named after a man called Sandwich. But it happens the other way, too - just ask anyone called Smith, Cooper, or Carpenter. It's a natural part of the evolution of language, and as long as we distinguish between Google in specific, and googling in general, I can't see why Google should object.
Dave Owen, UK

I disagree that "to google" has taken off over here. It's widespread both within the IT community where I work, and in the peer group of my 11-year-old son.
Chris Sunderland, London, UK

I think that Google should pay the dictionary owners for the free advertising.
Adam Hamilton, Scotland

I've been using Google as a verb for a while now, so have many other people in the UK. But while I use it as a verb, it isn't really generic, as I use Google as my search engine of choice. When I say I'm going to google something, I look it up on Google.
Allen, UK

Just remember, if Google(TM) loses its trademark status, Microsoft (just for instance) might be free to launch "Microsoft Google", and all Google's hard work brand-building will be undone. That's what it's all about.
Tom Sillence, UK

Though I can see why Google has done this there are already precedents on the net. A very popular web site with technical people is Articles posted on slashdot attract a huge readership, so much so that to be "slashdotted" is a recognised verb for being overwhelmed with traffic or to become popular.
Dave Barlow, UK

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