Monday, January 11, 2010

Go, Go, Google

You might think that Google is a shiny new word, right out of the box, since it refers to a computer search engine that came into being only in 1996. On the contrary, google has a long, long history—so long, in fact, that it is listed by some dictionaries as “obsolete.” 

Google is a variant of goggle, which dates at least to the sixteenth century, and is an adjective meaning “protuberant, prominent, or rolling,” or a verb meaning “to turn the eyes, to look sidelong, or to squint.”  A googly (probably adapted from either goggle or google) is a cricket ball thrown to curve in one direction and break in the other.  Googly-eyed is the same as goggle-eyed, “having bulging or rolling eyes.”

Fast forward to the turn of the twentieth century, when English music-hall performer Fanny Wentworth and Carl Smith wrote a song called “The Goo-Goo Song,” giving rise to goo-goo eyes, meaning “loving or enticing looks.”

We’re still a long way from the search engine, but bear up! In the wake of “The Goo-Goo Song,” the word google was resurrected in 1913 in The Google Book, a children's book about an imaginary creature called the Google (think “Grinch”) who lives in Googleland.  To capitalize on the word’s popularity, Billy DeBeck in 1919 started a comic strip called “Barney Google and Snuffy Smith.”  This gave rise to a 1923 song by Con Conrad and Billy Rose about “Barney Google, with His Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes.”

Okay, we’re getting there.  In the late 1930s Columbia University mathematician Edward Kasner wanted to devise a name for a number equal to the number “1” followed by one hundred zeroes, which is more than even Bill Gates and Warren Buffett can count.  His nine-year-old nephew, Milton Sirotta, a fan of the Barney Google comic strip, suggested google.  Kasner liked the sound of it, but decided to change the spelling, and he introduced the word googol in his 1940 book Mathematics and the Imagination.

This is the term Larry Page and Sergey Brin had in mind when they named their company in 1996—but they misspelled it (presumably intentionally), thus reintroducing with a new meaning a 500-year-old word that had served many purposes.  Now google has made it back into the dictionaries, obsolete no more, not only as a trademarked noun, with a capital G, but also as a lower-case verb meaning “to search for on the Internet.”

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who invites you to google him at any time, mused as follows:

           My eyes start to goggle, my nose starts to wriggle,
My brain starts to boggle, and soon I may giggle, 
I’ll play on my bugle a tune that’s quite fugal
And make goo-goo-googly eyes while I google.

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