In a highly publicized moved, Merriam-Webster (M-W) added a new verb, to google to its entries two weeks ago. This means that the company becomes the eponym of a legitimized English word, in a class with Charles C. Boycott, the Irish land agent whose name became the standard word for organized avoidance, Vidkun Quisling, the Norwegian traitor, and Jean Nicot, French diplomat whose name now underlies nicotine, to mention only a few.
M-W added this new word only 3 years after it first appeared. 3 years in the life of a language is like 3 seconds in a human life–hardly enough time for the word to prove itself a staple member of the English vocabulary. The online Oxford English Dictionary added the verb (capitalized: to Google) in June, so the move is nothing new but M-W managed to create a much larger wave of hype for it.
For Google, this is a bitter-sweet honor. It is sweet to know that your trademark familiar to tens of millions of English-speakers and tens of millions more will be uttering it in the future. Kudos to Google marketing. However, since the word now has a new, general meaning, it will not promote Google branding very much. (M-W claims that it means “to use the Google search engine to obtain information about (as a person) on the World Wide Web.” We all know, however, that it is quickly coming to mean “to look someone or something up.”
The other problem facing Google is the fact that words in the dictionary cannot be trademarked, so Google now faces the possibility that other companies can use its trademark to refer to searches on their website. “Googling is best on Yahoo,” may now be safe, whereas Google would have had a trademark infringement case before the M-W move.
Other companies have struggled against the same fate of their trademarks: Xerox, Cellophane, aspirin, Kleenex, and escalator all started out as brand names. Johnson and Johnson began using Band-aid brand in their commercials when band aid was commonized (made into a common noun). That phrase is now often written as one word (bandaid) and appears in idioms like, “A band aid isn’t going to fix this problem.”
This solution will not work for Google, of course. We will have to wait to see what its marketers and lawyers will work out. However, it is not an event that it can afford to ignore.