Yesterday in my writing class, I found occasion to teach the word schadenfreude (the feeling of pleasure at other people’s misfortune.) They were all quite fascinated with the word – not only its meaning but that it’s actually a German word, not English. One student remarked, “But there’s really no word to say that in English?”
Well, no there isn’t. Not until we borrowed it from German. And really, who are we kidding? We didn’t borrow anything. We stole it.
We steal a lot, actually. And there’s no one to stop us. The French have their Académie Française, the Germans have their Rat für deutsche Rechtschreibung, and even Tartar has the Institute of Language, Literature and Arts of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tatarstan. I don’t even know where Tartarstan is.
But English? Nothing. No regulating body to scold us for stealing German words (or Polish, Turkish, Russian, Chippewa, Navajo, Japanese…you get the idea). No learnéd council to tell us our follies or charge us fines for not choosing proper Anglo-Saxon words like leave instead of relinquish; ask instead of inquire; or drink instead of imbibe.
We are free to say what we want.
Or are we? What, or who, else is trying to control language?
This question has arisen anew in the past few weeks, starting with a scuffle over what the Swedish can or cannot (officially) say. The Language Council of Sweden was all set to add some new words to its official lexicon, among them such words as “…emoji, emoticons used in instant messages; drinkorexi, an eating disorder involving barely eating while drinking alcohol instead; and conversesjukan, or Converse disease, bad feet or posture caused by wearing trendy trainers.” (The Guardian)
It was also going to include the word ogooglebar, which translates as “ungoogleable” and would be defined as “something that cannot be found on the web using a search engine.” However, the word hasn’t become official yet because someone opposed it: Google.
Google wanted the Council to change the definition to “something that cannot be found on the web using Google,” and also to include the fact that Google is a trademarked name. In response, the Council announced that it would not give in to Google’s demands and instead would simply drop the word from its official vocabulary. In a statement given on Wednesday, 26 March 2013, the Council’s director, Ann Cederberg, said, “Google asked the Language Council to amend the definition of the word. Today, we instead are deleting the word, marking our displeasure with Google’s attempts to control the language.” (The Guardian)
This, of course, is not the end of the story.
There is apparently yet another word in Swedish: Bloggbävning: “in English: a blogquake, or “the process by which a topic explodes in the blogosphere and is then picked up by more mainstream media outlets.” (CBC News) Ogooglebar became an Internet darling, adopted by Twitterers everywhere and making it a trending topic. The Atlantic even suggested that we immediately add it to our own English language. For example,
“Used in an English sentence: “I’m going on a date tonight, but he’s totally ogooglebar! What are the odds he’s an axe murderer?”
Anyone who has older brothers or sisters who liked to tease their young siblings would know that the surest way to get teased even harder was to insist that they stop teasing. When I was just a wee lass, I couldn’t say /r/ properly. It came out as a /w/ instead. Knowing this, my sister would ask me questions such as, “Who is your favorite on Happy Days?”
“Wichie.” I would say.
This continued until I was near tears, knowing I’d been once again duped into being teased. (It occurs to me that this might have been a pivotal moment in my decision to be a linguist.) I begged, threatened, cajoled, bribed…I did anything my 5-year-old self could conceive of to get her to stop. This, of course, only ensured that she would continue her torment. The only thing that eventually stopped her was when I just shut my damn mouth. That and speech lessons in the first grade.
So what I’m essentially saying here is that in this situation, Google is acting like a 5-year-old girl with a speech impediment.
Ogooglebar may be officially disavowed, but it has been embraced by the Internet and we all know what that means. Game over.
So much for language regulation by anyone, official or otherwise.
English, as I’ve said, has no official regulatory body to control its usage by its speakers. There are many reasons for this, but if nothing else, we can almost guarantee that as long as the Internet exists, it will serve to mock and render useless any decree such a body would attempt to make. And who likes to be mocked?