Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Bada bing!

Microsoft have just launched a new search engine, Bing™, which they hope will be a serious pretender to Google's web search crown. While the beta is slick with a particularly impressive image search module, functionality won't be the only front on which the battle for search dominance will be won. Microsoft will also have to sell us brand Bing.

According to the Microsoft marketing folk, Bing has an onomatopoeic quality, evocative of that moment of enlightenment or discovery - the 'sound of found'. Steven Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, also expressed his happiness with its potential to 'verb up'. This comment is interesting because, in general, companies are fiercely protective of their treasured trademarks and do their utmost to prevent their verbification or use as a generic noun.

Becoming the generic term for a class of product is certainly confirmation of a brand's dominance. However, if a trademark becomes genericized, the owners’ intellectual property rights to the word are threatened. Syntactic or morphological shifts such as verbification and pluralization can often signal a trademark’s demise and so are actively discouraged by the likes of Google™, Hoover™ and Xerox™ wishing to avoid the fate of escalator, kerosene, trampoline and yo-yo.

The situation gets pretty tricky when it comes to dictionaries. It is the job of a lexicographer to use corpus evidence to identify and record language change accurately. If there is evidence of change in the form, frequency or function of a word - trademark or otherwise - then a good dictionary should reflect this. As can be seen here though, trademark owners will always defend their brand, even at the expense of lexicographical completeness. Consequently, we have to be very careful when dealing with trademarks in our dictionaries - always using the registered trademark symbol where required with the disclaimer that a trademark's inclusion by us has no bearing on its legal status.

Only time will tell if Steve Ballmer gets his wish but he'll surely be pleased to know that the word ‘bing’ has got form when it comes to 'verbing up'. According to The Chambers Dictionary (never one to leave you short of an obscure definition) it is an obsolete slang term evidenced in the works of Walter Scott and means 'to go'.

Incidentally, 'google' as a verb also has an existence independent of search engines. It describes the action of a cricket ball and means 'spin like a googly' - a 'googly' being 'an off break bowled with an apparent leg-break action by a right-arm bowler to a right-handed batsman, or conversely for a left-arm bowler'. Unsurprisingly, neither of these terms is in any way related to the origin of Google™. The name is a play on the word googol and a reference to the ambition rather than the cricketing nous of Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Ruth O'Donovan

1 comment:

John Brice said...

I believe that BING is a recursive acronym
Bing Is Not Google.

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