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Google and Ogooglebar: Who owns the meaning of words?

google searchHow do you say “something that cannot be found on the web using a search engine” in Swedish?

Until this week, you could have said ogooglebar, a term sanctioned by no less than the Language Council of Sweden, and roughly equivalent to the English speaker’s mouthful “ungooglable.”

Unfortunately for search-challenged Scandinavians, Google didn’t like the idea of its name being part of a general term for online search, and suggested amending the definition to describe only searches performed via Google. The Language Council – which is dedicated to documenting the emergence of new words in Swedish – didn’t think much of this, or fancy a lengthy legal process. So the word was removed from the official list of new Swedish terms.

Whether absence from this list will make much difference to Swedish speaking habits remains to be seen, although it seems unlikely. As the Council put it in an online statement on 26th March – at least so far as I can tell, courtesy of none other than Google’s translation service – “Google has namely forgot one thing: language development do not care about brand protection. No individual can decide about the language.” The grammar may be iffy, but the point is clear. Courtesy of the internet, the furore around ogooglebar is likely only to spread its usage.

There are larger concerns at stake here, however. I’ve spent much of the last year writing a book about language and technology, and the rise of “ungooglable” and its international equivalents marks one of the most characteristic linguistic evolutions of our age: binary vocabulary.

Unfollow, unfriend

To take just a handful of terms, consider what it means to “like” and to “unlike”, or to “favourite” and to “unfavourite”; how you can “follow” and “unfollow”, or “friend” and “unfriend”, other people; and how you constantly “click” or “unclick” onscreen boxes.

In each case, what’s on offer is a near-miraculous promise of agency: the possibility of words and actions that are, unlike those taking place in the real world, entirely reversible. There’s nothing that cannot be undone in an instant, then done again at will (the word “undone” itself has existed in English for around 700 years but, when Shakespeare and his predecessors used it, they usually implied death or destruction: a far cry from pressing “Ctrl-Z” on a keyboard).

Even “ungoogleable” has a reassuring kind of certainty to it. On the one hand lies the ordered, searchable realm within which we conduct our daily digital business. On the other, there’s the stuff we’re best off not worrying about: a messy, unsearachable space spanning everything from cyber-dissidents to criminals, via paywalls and anonymous networks.

Except, of course, the boxes of online experience are never quite as tidy as they seem. “Untag” yourself from an embarrassing public image – or indeed from an image that doesn’t actually show you at all – and both the deed and the undeed will remain recorded forever. Unfollow or unfriend someone you know and they will vanish from view – but they may well never forget or forgive. No matter how many times you click undo, the machine records and remembers.

Reversible words promise a kind of perpetual present, in which everything can always be exactly the way you want it (provided you only feel one of two ways). Yet data itself only accumulates. Whether you consider yourself to be ogooglebar or not, the digital book of your life is steadily being written within somebody’s servers – and few of its words will ever be unwritten.

Anthony-Claret Onwutalobi
Anthony-Claret is a software Engineer, entrepreneur and the founder of Codewit INC and CEO of Portia Web Solutions. Mr. Claret publishes and manages the content on Codewit Word News website and associated websits. He's a writer, IT Expert, great administrator, technology enthusiast, social media lover and all around digital guy.

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