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API Journal: Article

"To Google" Is Officially a Verb: A Behind-the-Scenes History

The 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary includes “googling” (lower case g)

Doug Edwards' Xooglers Blog
[Originally posted Monday, July 10, 2006]

Googling has officially become a verb. The 11th edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary now includes “googling” (lower case g). Actually the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) beat them to the punch a month ago by listing Google (upper case g) in their authoritative lexicon of the English language. It’s about time. People have been using Google as a verb for years, despite protestations by the company (many of which I authored myself) about the genericization of the trademarked name.

Having your brand name used as a generic term, is of course, a mixed blessing for a company. On the one hand, it’s great to have your name become the common shorthand for an entire category. It implies acceptance that your product is the standard by which all others in the category are judged and it’s great word-of-mouth for building awareness and trial.

On the other hand, you want to protect your trademark and it’s difficult to do that if overuse dilutes its connection to your product. If Google becomes synonymous with “searching the internet” without a connection to the specific service offered by Google Inc. at www.google.com, then anyone can offer a way to “google for information.” Say, for example, Microsoft. They could offer an MSN google box if Google’s trademark on the name were to be revoked through genericide.

And so, companies like Google are forced to write letters to those who misuse their trademark as a verb (verbs cannot be trademarked). If they don’t, the US Patent and Trademark Office may decide that the company is no longer interested in maintaining ownership of its trademarked term.

The whole process is silly and goes against the dynamic nature of language and is about as effective as standing in a rising river and yelling at the rain to stop falling. Everyone knows people will use words the way they want to. That’s how languages avoid dying. As an English major and frequent abuser of grammar as an advertising copywriter, I always felt hypocritical playing enforcer, but the law was pretty clear. So letters were sent when we saw our trademark being incorrectly applied.

We’d work with TV shows that wanted to include references to Google and request that they not use it as a verb (they usually ignored us). We’d ask reporters not to promote incorrect usage and we’d keep an eye on the most important of all agents in the battle for trademark protection: lexicographers.

Once an editor defines a word in a dictionary, it carries a lot of weight in the courts as they decide whether a word is still a trademark or has become a more general term. So, we tried to forestall the official definition of Google as something other than our proprietary service.

In early 2003, the website Wordspy included Google as a neologism, without specifically tying it to Google Technology Inc (the formal name of the company at that time). So, our legal department sent them a letter. The note was a typically polite, but direct, request that Wordspy cease and desist their use of Google in an improper fashion. It didn’t threaten legal action, but simply asked that Wordspy, “help us to protect our brand by deleting the definition of "google" found at wordspy.com or revising it to take into account the trademark status of Google.”

When the publisher of Wordspy posted the letter on his site, some people inside and outside of the Googleplex got upset about Google having turned into a heavy-handed monopolistic oppressor of the weak and downtrodden. This happened with disturbing regularity. Apparently a certain percentage of any set group of people looks for signs that companies with sterling reputations are actually fronting for Satan. And of course, with Google’s “Don’t be evil” motto hanging on its back like a “kick me” sign, the company got cut very little slack.

The internal controversy led to seminars on what constituted a trademark and discussion about whether we violated our own rules by offering onesies for infants that said "I Google" and by signing our customer service emails with "Keep on Googlin'."

Slashdot picked up the Wordspy story, which meant it quickly spread through the geek community. To be fair, most of the comments on the original post accurately reflected the nature of Google’s predicament. Still, the hate mail began pouring in and we scrambled to smooth our users’ ruffled feathers.

Just as that furor was calming down, we heard a rumor that the OED was going to include Google in their next edition. Given their prominence, we couldn’t afford to sit back and hope for the best. I worked with Rose in legal to write a letter that took on more of an advisory than adversarial tone. It turned out to be a false alarm as Google had not yet attained the level of awareness it has today and the editors of the OED were not ready to acknowledge it formally. We did receive assurances that the OED staff understood the nature of trademarks and were sensitive to the issues involved in defining a trademark term.


Doug's History of Protecting "Google" Continues on the Next Page


[This post appeared originally here on July 10, 2006, and is republished here in full by kind permission of the author, who retains full copyright.]

More Stories By Doug Edwards

From 1999 to 2005, Doug Edwards was was director of consumer marketing and brand management for Google. Other work experience includes stints as online brand group manager for the San Jose Mercury News, communications director for KQED FM, admission officer for Brown University and Novosibirsk correspondent for the public radio program Marketplace. He blogs at http://xooglers.com, a gathering spot for ex-Googlers to reminisce and comment on the latest developments in search.

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