Erikka Askeland: Trade-mark pedants can’t turn tide

That good old phrase about how “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” may not often said in Sweden.

Instead, the Swedish language council, Språkrådet, launched a war of words against the world’s most popular search engine over the inclusion of the word “ogooglebar” – or ungoogleable – in its list of new Swedish words.

Not unlike the good wordsmiths over at the Oxford English Dictionary, the Swedish council publishes an annual list of words that have entered the common parlance. But Google, the California company that runs the world’s most pervasive method of searching the internet, cavilled. While the Swedes wanted the definition to refer to what “you can’t find on the web with the use of a search engine”, the legal minds at the office campus known as the Googleplex demanded they amend it to specify that the meaning could only refer to searches using their own website, and not other search engines. As a result, the council accused the company of attempting to “control the language”.

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Rather than change the wording of the interpretation, the language cultivator simply pulled “ogooglebar” from its list. By doing so, the council refused to compromise with Google’s push to change the official meaning of the word.

You have to wonder why the search-engine people would bother. It is all reminiscent of the great Portakabin war of the early 21st century. Surely you recall it. It culminated in the letters pages of Private Eye after the satirical magazine received an entreaty from Dick Ellershaw, the intellectual property manager at the York-based construction group. Dick politely but firmly asked the publication to refrain from using the word “Portakabin” or even “portacabin” as a generic term for a temporary modular building, because the company had trademarked the name.

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In reply, the magazine less than politely mocked the hapless pedant and his attempt to reclaim the word.

We are accustomed to brands becoming generic terms – we all know how to write with a biro and blow our noses on a kleenex after we hoover the lounge. Some might even regard having their thing become the de facto noun or verb as a sign of popular success. But Portakabin and – despite now becoming a common verb (I google, you google, he googles) – the search engine company disagree. Mr Ellershaw will forever be assumed to be finicky and annoying. He’s sent out thousands of those letters. Even I got one once. But trade-mark law insists that the one who took out the legal protection on their brand must be seen to defend it or lose it. You can almost see poor fussbudget’s point: he wants to ensure that other makers of modular buildings and portable potties don’t try to pass off their shoddy product as a true Portakabin TM.

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The trouble with this idea is that corporate interests take precedence over the democracy of language. And with Google being so omnipresent, this power borders on the sinister. In countries where freedom of speech is supposedly assured, the ability to shout “Portacabin!” in the street may get you funny looks, but the law of the land should ensure you are not then slapped with a writ. Likewise, declining to name the search engine in the definition of the word ungoogleable should be upheld, if only because it seems patently obvious anyway. To have to repeat the name of the brand when it is already in the word is a lack of stylishness bordering on solecism.

Actually, ungoogleable is a terrific word at the crux of our digital information age. It refers to people with names so common it is impossible to determine which of the thousands that have cropped up in the search are them. Ungoogleable is also the holy grail of the quiz master, who must work to stymie cheats with their smartphones at the weekly contest in the pub. It is the preserve of the outlaw who works to ensure he or she remains off the grid. People in Sweden will still use it whether it has been defined or not.

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Words should belong to their users first and to brands second. Any attempt to change this would be akin to turning a tide.