So ungooglably yours

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It was just a short piece on the radio the other day, about how some people take pains to make themselves invisible on the Internet. They don't use their real names in chat rooms, the writer for Wired News explained to the NPR host; they don't join clubs that put their newsletters online. If they do run across themselves on the Internet, they may tweak their names to slip out of reach of the search engines.

The term used to describe these people cloaked in privacy is "ungooglable," or, as Wired rendered it, "unGoogleable." (My own preference for a word being absorbed into the vernacular would be to lowercase it and drop that middle "e." Google's lawyers are probably not happy with any of this.)

As Ann Harrison wrote in Wired News:

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"As the internet makes greater inroads into everyday life, more people are finding they're leaving an accidental trail of digital bread crumbs on the web - where Google's merciless crawlers vacuum them up and regurgitate them for anyone who cares to type in a name. Our growing Googleability has already changed the face of dating and hiring, and has become a real concern to spousal-abuse victims and others with life-and-death privacy needs."

"Ungooglable" is one of those words that people understand completely the first time they hear it. And it encapsulates, all in a single word, the ubiquity of Internet search engines, particularly Google; the need some people feel to escape them; and the way a corporate name can morph itself from a proper noun to an active verb.

And so quickly: The company is less than 10 years old.

By contrast, the humble English word "ship," as a common noun - very common indeed in the language of a seafaring nation - goes back to the early 8th century. But the oldest citation the Oxford English Dictionary gives for "ship" as a verb in the sense of sending or transporting (goods) by ship dates from 1436: "Saffron, quiksilver ... is shipped into Fflaundres fulle craftylye."

The transition that took seven centuries with "ship" has taken less than a decade with "Google": "I only ever met him at the coffee shop, so I thought I'd better Google him before our first real date."

"Google" has been successful as a corporate name because it's been successful as a corporation, of course, but the sound of the word explains part of its appeal, too. It was coined as a variation on "googol," the invented term for a 1 followed by 100 zeros. But "Google" works as well as it does for reasons utterly unmathematical. The "oo" sound is heard in words like goofy and doofus and loopy. There's Barney Google and his friend Snuffy Smith, who live on in the funny pages.

"Google" fits in easily among a group of words that serve as either nouns or verbs: giggle, wiggle, waffle, chuckle, fizzle, tickle. They're not marked "slang" in the dictionary, but you don't expect to run across them in, say, a Supreme Court opinion. Whatever "googling" is, it can't possibly be hard to do.

Corporate names like "American Telephone and Telegraph Company" or "Ford Motor Company" all but cried out to be carved into stone. Compare - and try to explain - eBay, Amazon, and the self-punctuating Yahoo!

Google, like Xerox and FedEx before it, illustrates the paradox of trademark success. The photocopy, in its day, helped flatten the information hierarchy - as anyone who ever got the fifth carbon copy of an important document can attest.

FedEx built a business by knowing where things were in transit, but it became a verb of the people when it demonstrated that for few dollars more, that belatedly purchased birthday gift could actually get there on time.

Such trade names don't just define leading companies; they suggest new words to go with the new processes they provide. But when they lend their names to the common speech, the companies sometimes have trouble getting them back.

This appears with links at: http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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