'Ungoogleable' and the lexical creativity that digital is fueling

‘Ungoogleable’ and the lexical creativity that digital is fueling

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The word ‘ungoogleable’ (or rather ‘ogooglebar’) was removed from a list of new Swedish words this week by the Language Council of Sweden. They had defined it as a term that ‘could not be found on a search engine'; Google said that is could only refer to terms not discoverable on Google. Rather than redefine how people use the term, the Council left it out. As they said:

Who decides language? We do, language users. We decide together which words should be and how they are defined, used and spelled.

That people use a term like ‘ogooglbar’ to refer to all search engines, and not just Google, is not unusual. Most languages have words that started off as a brand name but are now used as the generic noun – hoover, zip and more recently photoshop are used in that way. Usually you start by using the brand name for the whole class (a form of synecdoche  and then that generic noun is used in other forms of speech – for example as a verb (‘I googled his name’) or an adjective (as is the case with ‘ogooglebar’).

So it should come as no surprise that people use the term, nor that it is used to refer to generic searching. The efforts of Google to dictate that the definition refer only to them would make little change on the way the term is used, and so the Language Council of Sweden can do little but ignore the word and allow people to carry on using it.

This example highlights the nature of lexical creativity that the digital world, and indeed social media, is bringing. The use of terms like ‘twitter’ or ‘instagram’ as verbs rather than as proper nouns is widespread – and as new digital tools and technologies appear so we should expect new words to enter our lexicons.

But perhaps a more interesting example of new words comes from looking at where languages collide – where, for example, English is used by non-native speakers when they are referring to digital terms. The term ‘Handy’ in German (meaning ‘mobile phone’) is an example where a word that means one thing in it’s original language (where it means ‘convenient’ in English) is used to mean something very different in the language that adopts it.

With social technologies people from different languages can communicate more regularly and more easily. They will be exposed to and often start to use words and terms that don’t come from their original language. But the manner of these adoptions, and how the words then develop in their adopted language will be interesting to follow.

Words are important, and with digital technologies we are experiencing lexical creativity. We shouldn’t let a global brand, or a language council stop this.

Photo credit: Why do we need a dictionary when we have wireless? by ElektraGrey