December 2010
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G is for Google

G is also for genericisation

G is for Google, as the company's chief executive, Larry Page, put it this week in a blog post introducing Alphabet, Google's new corporate name.

G is also for genericisation.

That's the process of becoming generic, or "not sold or made under a particular brand name," according to Webster's dictionary.

The definition is of more than just linguistic interest to Google and its shareholders.

Google is one of the most valuable brands in the world. According to Forbes magazine, it ranks third with an estimated brand value of $66 billion, behind Apple and Microsoft. The company vigilantly defends its trademark, both in and out of court. It's in no imminent danger of losing its trademark protection. But given the popularity of Google's brand, and how it has entered mainstream English usage as a verb (to google) and participle (googling), it may only be a matter of time.

If so, it will join the distinguished company of aspirin, cellophane, thermos, escalator, dry ice and trampoline - all once-prominent brand names that lost their legal status as protected trademarks after entering mainstream usage. Webster's itself has been genericised as a synonym for dictionary, and the name can be used by anybody, even though it's owned by Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Thanks to zealous policing by their corporate owners, Band-Aid (Johnson & Johnson) and Kleenex (Kimberly-Clark) still cling to protected trademark status, but are so much a part of common usage "they're almost 100 per cent of the way to genericisation," said Grant Barrett, a lexicographer and co-host of a public radio show about language, "A Way With Words."

Xerox, FedEx, TiVo, Skype and Photoshop face similar issues. All are trademarked names commonly used as verbs. Google, however, is hurtling toward genericisation with unprecedented speed, according to linguistics experts. The word google was derived from the mathematical term googol - the numeral one followed by 100 zeros, or 10 raised to the 100th power. It was registered as a domain name by the company in 1997. Its first known use as a part of speech came just a year later, when Page appended the phrase "Have fun and keep googling!" to an email announcing new search features.

Some of the early published examples of Google as a generic word appear in references to dating. The headline "Don't Be Shy Ladies - Google Him!" appeared in the weekly New York Observer in January 2001. ("With Googling, it's easy to find out if a new crush has ever made news, has ever been published or, on the flip side, has ever been indicted for securities fraud.") Two months later, The New York Times reported: "According to dating experts, it is increasingly common for people to perform Web searches on their prospective mates. A search engine that is often used for this activity is called Google, which has spawned a new verb, to google, as uttered in sentences like, 'I met this woman last night at a party and I came right home and googled her."



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