Just Google It: A Short History of a Newfound Verb
A brand reaches its apotheosis when it slips into the vernacular as a generic noun—Band-Aid, Kleenex, even Dumpster. Anyone else’s dad still say “Dempster Dumpster,” for the brothers who patented it in 1939, and alas, aren’t around now to copyright Dempster Dumpster Fire?
To become a verb is even less common. “To Hoover” for “to vacuum” comes to mind. “To Skype,” meaning to make a video call, shows modest promise, but since video chatters need to agree on software, it’s unlikely Skype can ever stand in for FaceTime or WhatsApp. The rare tech company to achieve verbal dominion over a whole category of digital experience is of course Google, with “to Google.”
Larry Page used the verb form two months before the company launched in September 1998. The cutie-pie locution showed up on a listserv for Google-Friends when the search engine lived at http://google.stanford.edu/. (Don’t bother; it’s too late to join Google-Friends.) After a brief update to his new product, Page signed off to his merry crew, “Have fun and keep googling!” His company’s search index is now more than 100 million gigabytes. Evidently, we did.
And thus for insiders, “to Google” started as an intransitive verb; a pastime without an object; search for search’s sake; a Sunday drive through cyberspace. But by 2002 we layfolk had gotten our mitts on it and knew what Google was really for—forensics, stalking, the transitive stuff. “Have you Googled her yet?” Willow asks Buffy in the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “She’s 17!” cries Xander, finding some nice prurience in the word. Corrects Willow: “It’s a search engine.” The next year, the American Dialect Society named Google, transitive verb, “the most useful” word of 2002. The Oxford English Dictionary minted it in June 2006.
Google, verb, did instantly seem like a fragment of verse we’d needed since the information superhighway of the 1990s first threatened us with vertigo. Supplying the illusion of order to the jerry-built tubes and their effluvium has long been the role of the big commercial tech companies. Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information.” It’s Faustian. But “to Google,” of course, does not mean “to organize”; it means to submit to Google’s organization while pretending you’re blazing a bespoke passage through the information Schwarzwald, over the information Rockies, and around the information Horn.
Part of the shared pretending done by Google and anyone who uses it is to act as if “information” on the web already existed in some kind of natural state prior to Google’s mission to organize it. Instead, information in its present form is, in fact, a product of Google and would be nothing without the company’s decision to recognize it as Googleable, rank it in the algorithm’s esoteric hierarchy, and incentivize its renovation so it might make itself prettier to Google. “To Google” something, therefore, is to accept the fiction that Google is both the whole information world—and the only path through it.
What a racket. How did we ever start believing that a highly limited set of visual and symbolic data—words, numbers, and images without depth—make up the entirety of the “world’s information”? You can’t Google taste, scent, or touch; sound searches are janky. Google engages barely two of the five human senses and tells us that’s the whole world.
China’s search engine, Baidu, while benighted by censorship, nonetheless has the far better name. “Baidu” derives from “Green Jade Table in the Lantern Festival,” a Song dynasty poem by Xin Qiji about the annual festival during which maidens left their houses to be seen and courted. The poem’s last line is, “Hundreds and thousands of times, for her I searched in chaos / Suddenly, I turned by chance, to where the lights were waning, and there she stood.”
As the Baidu corporate site explains, the company’s name evokes “the search for a retreating beauty amid chaotic glamour.”
Organizing the world’s information sounds ambitious. On the other hand, searching for retreating beauty amid chaotic glamour partakes of the romance that the frayed old internet once used to suggest. But it sometimes seems we have organized and Googled that romance out of existence. And the beauty we once searched expectantly for has retreated for all time.
Virginia Heffernan (@page88) is the author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art.
This article appears in the November issue. Subscribe now.