Gene Weingarten: Take this™ and google it!

March 1, 2012

Few companies are as protective of their corporate name as is Google, which has been known to write frosty cease-and-desist letters to people who use “google” as a generic term. The company is proud of its unusual name, which it says was coined in 1997 by its co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in an accidental misspelling of the mathematical term “googol.” It’s not a verb, Google says, and never was, and using it as such violates the company’s trademark.

So, imagine my surprise when I got an e-mail from a reader named Ed Lloyd, who had happened upon “google,” used as a verb in a collection of short stories published in 1942. In a story called “Single Blessedness,” humorist George Ade wrote this: “Charley Fresh — who regards himself as the irresistible captivator — googles his way among the girls for six nights a week and is known as a ‘lady’s man.’ ”

From context, Ade appears to be using “google” to mean “unctuously ingratiate oneself with the opposite sex.” No such definition appears elsewhere, so we may credit George Ade for coining “google” as a verb; he wrote that in 1922, three-quarters of a century before Google existed.

This got me thinking about how ironic it would be if there had been other prior uses of the word that Google so fiercely arrogates to itself, especially if they were also somewhat unseemly. I spent a day in research.

“Google” first appeared in print in an 1856 music review, used to portray a horrible sound. The writer described a certain aria being performed thus: “A gradually modulating howl, a squeal, a squall, and a guttural google-google-google, a deafening bawl like the hoarse whistle of a locomotive engine when under full headway, a queaky wop, wop, wop. ...


(by Eric Shansby)

In 1890, a pharmaceuticals journal in Iowa used “google-google” to approximate the sound of the environmental disaster that occurs when varnish leaks from an overturned barrel. (Later, in an autobiography, Louis Armstrong would use it to describe the sound of a gluttonous friend sucking down a bucket of beer.)

In the 1800s, a “google” was apparently a derisive nickname for an Adam’s apple — most often the Adam’s apple of a hog, something of a delicacy, when cooked and eaten with turnip greens, by American hicks.

“Google-nose” was a name for an ugly duck with a bill that resembles that of a vulture. (It was also known as a “skunk-head.”)

“Google-eyed” was an insensitive term in the late 1800s to describe strabismus, a medical condition in which one’s eyes are not properly aligned and which gives the sufferer the appearance of being insane, or drunk. An 1898 medical journal on alcoholism gives hundreds of synonyms for intoxication, including: “groatable,” “gutter-legged,” “got the gravel rash,” “kisky,” “off his nut” and “google-eyed.” Charles Dickens once wrote of James I of England: “He was ugly, awkward and shuffling, both in mind and person. His tongue was much too large for his mouth, his legs were much too weak for his body, and his dull google-eyes stared and rolled like an idiot’s.”

In 1921, the august Journal of the American Medical Association, writing on neurasthenia — then a term for hypochondria — reported one patient’s complaint over what appears to be a fart: A sensation “moves in the right flank, passes up and across the abdomen, returns backward, crosses again, and finally escapes with the sound ‘google, google’!”

Were there no positive references? Finally, I came upon what I thought was one, one I should have remembered. There was once a beloved American cartoon character named “Barney Google.” He was a big-eyed hapless little guy with a domineering wife, and for some time America loved him. Then, I found a scholarly reference to a 1971 treatise on Barney Google called “The Deviant in the Comic Strip: The Case History of Barney Google,” which speculated, from the evidence, that he had sex with his horse.

In case you’re wondering where I got all this stuff, I googled it.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com.

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