Who owns the meaning of words?

My latest BBC column takes a look at controversy over the “official” meaning of ogooglebar, the friend/unfriend phenomenon of reversible language, and how far search engines can shape what we say and mean.

How do you say “something that cannot be found on the web using a search engine” in Swedish? Until this week, you could have said ogooglebar, a term sanctioned by no less than the Language Council of Sweden, and roughly equivalent to the English speaker’s mouthful “ungooglable.”

Unfortunately for search-challenged Scandinavians, Google didn’t like the idea of its name being part of a general term for online search, and suggested amending the definition to describe only searches performed via Google. The Language Council – which is dedicated to documenting the emergence of new words in Swedish – didn’t think much of this, or fancy a lengthy legal process. So the word was removed from the official list of new Swedish terms.

Whether absence from this list will make much difference to Swedish speaking habits remains to be seen, although it seems unlikely. As the Council put it in an online statement on 26th March – at least so far as I can tell, courtesy of none other than Google’s translation service – “Google has namely forgot one thing: language development do not care about brand protection. No individual can decide about the language.” The grammar may be iffy, but the point is clear. Courtesy of the internet, the furore around ogooglebar is likely only to spread its usage.

There are larger concerns at stake here, however. I’ve spent much of the last year writing a book about language and technology, and the rise of “ungooglable” and its international equivalents marks one of the most characteristic linguistic evolutions of our age: binary vocabulary.

To take just a handful of terms, consider what it means to “like” and to “unlike”, or to “favourite” and to “unfavourite”; how you can “follow” and “unfollow”, or “friend” and “unfriend”, other people; and how you constantly “click” or “unclick” onscreen boxes.

In each case, what’s on offer is a near-miraculous promise of agency: the possibility of words and actions that are, unlike those taking place in the real world, entirely reversible. There’s nothing that cannot be undone in an instant, then done again at will (the word “undone” itself has existed in English for around 700 years but, when Shakespeare and his predecessors used it, they usually implied death or destruction: a far cry from pressing “Ctrl-Z” on a keyboard).

Even “ungoogleable” has a reassuring kind of certainty to it. On the one hand lies the ordered, searchable realm within which we conduct our daily digital business. On the other, there’s the stuff we’re best off not worrying about: a messy, unsearachable space spanning everything from cyber-dissidents to criminals, via paywalls and anonymous networks.

Except, of course, the boxes of online experience are never quite as tidy as they seem. “Untag” yourself from an embarrassing public image – or indeed from an image that doesn’t actually show you at all – and both the deed and the undeed will remain recorded forever. Unfollow or unfriend someone you know and they will vanish from view – but they may well never forget or forgive. No matter how many times you click undo, the machine records and remembers.

Reversible words promise a kind of perpetual present, in which everything can always be exactly the way you want it (provided you only feel one of two ways). Yet data itself only accumulates. Whether you consider yourself to be ogooglebar or not, the digital book of your life is steadily being written within somebody’s servers – and few of its words will ever be unwritten.

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.