When google, a verb meaning "to search the Internet," was chosen by the American Dialect Society as Word of the Decade (2000-09), my ADS colleague Grant Barrett wondered whether Google's trademark lawyers might have preferred it if the runner-up, blog, had won instead. It is of course a tribute to the vast popularity of Google that it has become accepted as a generic verb for online searching, but the protectors of the trademark wouldn't necessarily see it that way. Meanwhile, Microsoft, creators of the rival search engine Bing, would very much like people to use their brand name as a verb.
The very first known appearance of the verb google comes from none other than Google cofounder Larry Page. In an announcement to the Google-Friends list on July 8, 1998, back when Google was a still a search engine on the Stanford University website, Page signed off by saying, "Have fun and keep googling!" Note that even back then in the early days, google in its verb form could be uncapitalized. (Perhaps it still carried a whiff of the word googol, the term for 1 followed by 100 zeros, on which Google was based.)
Of course, when Google was incorporated as a company a few months later, the lawyers got involved and Google was registered as a trademark. Trademark holders are always on the lookout for dilutions of the brand name, which could possibly lead down the slippery slope of genericization. (See Orin Hargraves' Language Lounge from last April for more on the ins and outs of genericization.) Google outlines the proper use of the trademark on its permissions page:
- Use the trademark only as an adjective, never as a noun or verb, and never in the plural or possessive form.
- Use a generic term following the trademark, for example: GOOGLE search engine, Google search, GOOGLE web search.
Despite these guidelines, Google (or google) quickly went generic. Paul McFedries of WordSpy was one of the first to document the extended use of the verb, creating an entry for it on his site in April 2001. For his troubles, McFedries was slapped with a cease-and-desist letter from Google in early 2003, which he shared with the American Dialect Society mailing list. Coincidentally, the ADS had just named google the Most Useful Word of 2002 (losing out to WMD in the main Word of the Year category).
By 2006, genericized google had become so common that both Merriam-Webster and the Oxford English Dictionary had published entries for it. Google responded on its official blog with a post that tried to be both light-hearted and legalistic (a tough mix). Grudgingly, they seemed to accept Google as a verb meaning "to search for information on Google," but the more extended use was declared verboten:
Our lawyers say: Bad. Very, very bad. 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.
Fast-forward to May 2009, when Microsoft announced that it was rebranding its Live Search as Bing. (See Nancy Friedman's Candlepower column, "The Bing Bang," for an extended rumination on the brand name.) Bing was registered as a trademark just like Google, but the Microsoft honchos were amenable to verbing right from the start, as reported in the New York Times:
And if Bing turns into a verb like, say, Xerox, TiVo or, well, Google, that would be nice too. Steven A. Ballmer, Microsoft's chief executive, said Thursday that he liked Bing's potential to "verb up."
Now, in 2010, how is the "verbing up" going? Are people Bing-ing, or even bing-ing? (I feel it necessary to insert a hyphen to avoid the impression that the root word is binge.) Last September, Chris Crum of WebProNews said, "Apparently there are people using 'Bing' as a verb, although I haven't really heard this one thrown around in real life yet." The verb still doesn't seem to have broken through into common usage, while google reigns supreme.
I leave you with a spoof commercial from the CollegeHumor website that illustrates just what Bing is up against.
Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer
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