All of which makes the ownership of words an important battleground. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through The Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty explains to Alice that “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Carroll was using absurdity to make a simple point: language is something we build together, and I can no more choose the precise meaning of my words than I can decide which laws of physics apply to me. Google, however, seem determined to play Humpty Dumpty – and in the process to make a very particular kind of binary claim. Either you use “Google” their way, or you don’t get to use it all.
Commercial imperatives may be at stake, not least around the vexed question of trademarks, but there’s also an old-fashioned petulance to this insistence: as if official approval still governed the way we judge language. Given that most of us are likely simply to type a word into Google if we want to check its meaning, this puts the company in a curiously invidious position. Should it describe words as people are using them, or suggest in certain cases how things “ought” to be?
Accurately reflecting the world has always been a sacrosanct principle for search. When it comes to language, though, every act of selection and interconnection itself adds another layer of meaning (just start typing into a search box to find out what auto-completed ideas are associated with your name). If you can’t find something online, it’s often because you lack the right words. And there’s a deliciously circular logic to all this, whereby what’s “right” means only what displays the best search results – just as what you yourself “like” is defined by the boxes you’ve ticked.
In the end, then, the Swedish Language Council’s statement of language’s independence from influence may not be quite as convincing as it seems. While no individual can decide the future of language, does the same apply to the software through which so many millions of our words flow each day?
“Ungooglable” is an ugly gloop of a word (ogooglebar is much more mellifluous), but it’s also a tribute to a certain species of contemporary power – and the ways in which some tools can shape not only how we communicate, but what we say, what we’re not allowed to say, and what the world thinks we mean. Language online may seem a simple, binary business. But there’s always more to be said at the margins of words.