MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: Today is Friday, March 13th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Megan Basham.
MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Now Word Play with George Grant.
GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTOR: Etymologists are linguistic detectives. Their task is to trace the origins and meanings of those words that make their way into our vocabulary. They will tell you that newly minted words, or neologisms, generally emerge to describe headline-grabbing turns of events, like Brexit and Trumpocrat; or to describe developments in technology like Gigeconomy and Tweetcred; or to describe trends in pop culture like Flightshaming and Gretafication.
These neologisms are usually created quite deliberately as portmanteaus, sniglets, logomorphs, or eponyms. Sometimes, they are created by turning a noun into a verb—something etymologists call denominalization or verbing. Thus, when we search for something on the internet, we say that we’re googling it—a verbified neologism derived from the name of the world’s most popular search engine, Google.
Of course, not all neologisms are so purposefully created. Sometimes they occur quite by accident. A perfect example of this is Google itself—the name and the noun.
According to Silicon Valley lore Google is in fact, a misspelling of the word googol. It is a mathematical term coined by the renowned Columbia University professor, Edward Kasner, and his nephew, Milton Sirotta, intended to describe the concept of ten duotrigintillion or ten to the hundredth power. One googol, they supposed, was greater than the number of atoms in the observable universe. And a googolplex, they said, was one followed by a googol of zeros—an unimaginably immense number.
One of the names Larry Page and Sergey Brin initially considered for their new internet search engine and company, was Googolplex. Page particularly liked the symbolism of the concept. But he was not enamored with the complexity of the word. So instead, he suggested the simpler googol. However, when checking to see if the domain googol.com was available, his programming assistant accidentally mistyped it as google.com. He realized his mistake almost immediately. But Page decided he actually liked the happy accident—and the name stuck.
As a result, the etymology of one of our most commonly used neologisms, along with its familiar verbified derivative, is just a spelling mistake—thus, taking to heart Vladimir Nabokov’s recommendation to make “ornaments of accidents and possibilities.”
I’m George Grant.