How Google Became a Verb

First published December 31, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

It’s probably because I’m just finishing a book (The Stuff of Thought) by famed linguist and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, but grammar has been on my mind more than usual lately. And in particular, I was fascinated by how we use Google in our language. Google, of course, has been “genericided” – the fate that falls on brands that lose their status as a protected brand name and become a generic term in our vocabulary. This causes much chagrin with Google’s legal and marketing team. What is more interesting however is the way we’ve taken Google into our lexicon.

Of Nouns and Verbs

Most brands, when they get incorporated into our language, become nouns. Kleenex, aspirin, escalators, thermoses and zippers all went down similar paths on the road to becoming common terms that described things. It might interest you to know, for instance, that in Japan, staplers are known as Hotchkisses (or technically, hochikisu). Google, however, is different. The word Google doesn’t replace the noun “search engine,” it replaced the act of searching. We made googling a verb. And that is a vital difference. We don’t call all search engines Google. But we do refer to our act of searching as googling.

More than this, we made Google a transitive verb – “I googled it”. That means I (the subject) used Google (the verb) to do something with it (the object). Pinker says the way we use words betrays the way we think about the world. Verbs are the lynchpins of our vocabulary, because we use them to explain how we interact with our physical world. And transitive verbs, in particular, act as connectors between us and the world. I once said that search was the connector between intent and content. The enshrining of Google as a verb reflects this. The act of googling connects us with information.

Sampling the Outside World through Google

But the use of Google as a transitive verb also gives us a glimpse into how we regard the gathering of the content we Google. Transitive verbs tend to reflect a transfer from the outside to the inside, a consumption of the external, either physically or through our senses: I drank it, I ate it, I saw it, I heard it, I felt it. In that sense, their use is personal and fundamental. “I googled it” gives us a sense of metaphorical transference – the consumption of information.

So, what does this mean? If you look at the role of our language, there is something of fundamental importance happening here. Language is our collection of commonly accepted labels that allow us to transfer concepts from our heads into the heads of others. These labels are not useful unless they mean the same thing to everyone. When I say thermos, you know instantly what I mean. Your visualization of it might be slightly different than mine (a Batman thermos from grade 5 is the image that I currently have) but we can be confident that we’re thinking about the same category of item. We have a shared understanding.

Speaking a Common Language

This need for commonality is the threshold that new words must cross before they become part of common language. This means that critical mass becomes important. Enough of us have to have the same concept in our heads when we use the same label before that label becomes useful. Generally, when technology introduces a concept that we have to find a new label for, we try a few variations on for size before we settle on one that fits. Common usage is the deciding vote.

With things like new products, the dominant brand has a good chance of becoming the commonly used label. Enough of us have experience with the brand to make it a suitable stand in for the product category. We all know what’s meant by the word escalator. And new product categories creep up fairly regularly, forcing us to agree on a common label. In the last decade or two, we’ve had to jam a lot of new nouns in our vocabulary: ATM’s, fax, browser, Smartphones, GPS, etc. Few of these categories have had enough single brand domination to make that brand the common label. Apple has probably come the closest, with iPod often substituting for MP3 player.

The material nature of our world means that we’re forever adding new nouns to our vocabulary. There are always new things we have to find words for. That’s why one half of all the entries in the Oxford dictionary are nouns. The odds of a brand name becoming a noun are much greater, simply because the frequency is higher. And by their nature, nouns live apart from us. They are objects. We are the subjects.

The Rarity of a Verb

But verbs are different. Only one seventh of dictionary entries are verbs. Verbs live closer to us. And the introduction of a new verb into our vocabulary is a much rarer event. This makes the critical mass threshold for a verb more difficult to pass than for a noun. First of all, enough of us have to do the action to create the need for a common label. Secondly, it’s rare for one brand to dominate that action so thoroughly. The birth of googling as a verb is noteworthy simply because so many of us were doing something new at the same place.

Why did I share this linguistic lesson with you? Again, it’s because so many of us are doing something at the same place. New verbs emerge because we are doing new things. We do new things because something drives us to do them. That makes it a fundamental human need. And to have that fundamental human need effectively captured by one brand – to the point that we call the act by the brand’s name – offers a rare opportunity to catalogue human activity in one place. One of the most underappreciated aspects of search marketing is the power of search logs to provide insight into human behavior. That’s what my first column of 2010 will be about.

And, just to leave you with a tidbit for next week, currently another brand name is on the cusp of becoming a verb (although it’s exact proper form is still being debated). The jury is still being assembled, but Twitter could be following in Google’s footsteps.

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