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Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Google and the language police

Nouns get used as verbs, some of them flagrantly transitively. "Reference" used as a transitive verb is perfectly good English in my book, and in a number of dictionaries. To Hugh, it is deplorable. Yet he, and others, "google" things with gay abandon. Many's the time Hugh has exhorted us to google his own articles, articles referenced in his posts. I struggle to see any difference of principle between "to reference" and "to google" used in this way. I am at a loss to see why one is deplorable and the other acceptable. Indeed, the main difference between the two transitive verbs is that "reference" has an older pedigree (first used in 1891) and google is an upstart callow youth, deriving moreover not just from a noun but - horror of horrors - a brand name. Not merely a brand name, but one used by management consultants, bankers and other modern day scoundrels, perhaps even to help grow their business. Can things get any worse?

Everything gets worse if you call the lawyers in. I googled a piece from the BBC, which I reference here. It is an old piece in internet terms, from 2003 when google as a verb was new:

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".

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.

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....

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.

I believe Americans vacuum rather hoover, but they do "simonize" their cars - at least Willy Loman did in Death of a Salesman.

Posted on 08/28/2007 6:12 AM by Mary Jackson
Comments
28 Aug 2007
Hugh Fitzgerald
Some of us vacuum. But no one simonizes. And when I dust those corners of the ceiling, I "puzzle" those corners, as all Old Fish -- even American Old Fish --  were trained to do at New Hall.

28 Aug 2007
Send an emailMary Jackson
I've never heard of puzzling corners. Must be a new thing. But I'm pretty sure Willy Loman simonized his car, perhaps wearing the "goddam arch supports" that I remember for some reason.

28 Aug 2007
Hugh Fitzgerald

One more thing. Those "language police" you write about -- I trust you didn't have me, or my mother, or Jacques Barzun, in mind, as part of the linguistic mutawwa to which you devote such attention, did you? I just want to be clear on that, before I bother to compose another reply, this one to your previous exercise in sweet-reasonableness and new-found admiration for Nabokov.

In the meantime, I will be happy to read your in-depth study of language change, and I promise not to privilege any particular discourse over another or to be judgmental. You wouldn't have it any other way.

No, I'm not about to pass judgment on that kind of thing, now that I have been repeatedly chastened by you and chidden by God.  And had Jacques Barzun, or Vladimir Nabokov, or my mother, if they had only realized that the severe purity of their unrivalled Sprachgefuhl made them unwitting recruits to the "language police," wold have certainly changed their ways and their attitude toward what they apparently foolishly regarded (and my mother, and possibly Barzun at 97, still regard) as unacceptable usages or neologisms to be quickly red-penciled, and always shunned. Now it is true that Nabokov, as part of a distant joke to trap some of his critics, once submitted poems under the pseudonym "Shishkov," but that was not  a tribute to the linguistically reactionary Admiral who back around 1820 founded the society of "Lovers of the Russian Word" (those were the days of the "Aglitskij Klub")in order to keep Russian "pure" and free of foreign words and turns of phrase, especially those gallicisms brought by all those French-language teachers and dancing-masters who escaped from Revolutionary France), with that society then leading to the counter-founding of literary Arzamas, and that in turn to the founding of the politico-cultural Green Lamp  -- and this was in the days when you didn't have to join clubs in order to swell your resume in order to get into the College Of Your Choice. 

I get it. I get your message. I'm going to go with -- oops, I mean get with -- with program. Panta Rei. You never step into the same river twice. Let it go, let it flow. Amarantha,  sweet and fair, ah braid no more thy shining hair. But as thy glittering hand or eye, round about thee let it fly. Let those nouns and verbs and adjectives fly. Go fly that kite, high or low as you wish, or high and then low, and don't ever comment on the kite-flying of others. Language is a natural phenomenon, just like the wind; it bloweth where it listeth. Describe, but never prescribe. Do not judge, lest ye be judged.  Don't fight this. Gracefully accept it.  Allow everyone his own idiolect. Even if you think, o'erweeningly, that someone by your lights may be conceivably corrigible, allow them to remain as they wish to remain -- utterly incorrigible.

Right. That in-depth studyThat refusal to privilege one discourse over another. It'll be graduate school redux, but this time I'll be teaching myself. And that study will give me a much-needed  quantum leap in my understanding of language and what to do with words. My knowledge will grow exponentially. I'll be able to recognize paradigms and parameters. I'll avoid worse-case scenarios. It'll be able .... well, first I think I need to take a hiatus. Everybody is taking a hiatus, or is already in hiatus, these days. Have you noticed?

 



28 Aug 2007
Hugh Fitzgerald

Americans once "simonized" their cars and do so no longer. The verb fell out of favor. Language, you see, changes.

As for "puzzling the corners," it that has been used at New Hall for a very long time. And isn't it good, by the way? I use it all the time, because I like to use words, no matter how rare, if they fit the bill. And spider-webs in corners cry out for "puzzling." Why, I think the word may go back a very long way, right back to the early doomed inhabitant of that venerable pile, the quercus-rubrum-rimmed home at Beaulieu, as it is also called, and that inhabitant known to history as Anne Boleyn.

But we could check Wright's English Dialect Dictionary.  Mine is in storage; perhaps you could visit the London Library and look up "puzzle" as a verb. I trust that when I asked you, some time ago, "Which Part of Wright's 'English Dialect Dictionary' Don't You Understand" and failed to get an answer, the part you don't understand are all words that come from the neighborhood of Chelmsford.



28 Aug 2007
Send an emailMary Jackson

I have never, either in my posts here, or in my article (not "in-depth", but very much to the point) said that anything goes. I can be as pedantic as anyone, as you know. My argument is that pedantry should be used with caution, and that we should be aware that our judgement is not absolute and should not be set in stone.

So why is "google" acceptable and "reference" deplorable? And why do you say "realise" in its modern sense where once people - some as clever as you - deplored it?

Still repeating the same old question - still no answer.

Judge not....

Well, since we're getting Biblical, if you don't watch those anacolutha I'll start talking about motes and beams.




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