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To Google or Not to Google

According to the OED, you can now Google away to your heart's content.

By Anders Bylund
Updated: 2:35 p.m. ET July 5, 2006

It's official: Google(Nasdaq: GOOG) really is a verb now. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which bills itself as "The definitive record of the English language," added the company name as a verb in the latest round of updates, placing Google in such august company as FedEx(NYSE: FDX), TiVo(Nasdaq: TIVO), and Xerox(NYSE: XRX).

While inclusion in the highly respected dictionary does prove Google's pop-culture cachet and a certain jene sais quoi ("I don't know what;" added to the OED in 1656), verbing isn't always a good thing. Just ask Xerox how it feels about its company name becoming a synonym for photocopying, a word use the company has fought tooth and nail for many years. Trademarks such as Xerox have to be defended, or they risk lapsing into the public domain.

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Maybe Adobe(Nasdaq: ADBE) shouldn't mind you Photoshopping images, even if you're not actually using Adobe Photoshop to do it. It can be argued that it's free advertising, but try telling that to corporate lawyers. Indeed, Adobe strongly discourages the use of Photoshop as a verb, generic noun, slang term, or any other not-very-official form of the term.

Fair enough -- who among us know that Band-Aid is a Johnson & Johnson(NYSE: JNJ) trademark, or that the only real Kleenex tissues are made by Kimberly-Clark(NYSE: KMB)? Apart from consumer-goods aficionados, I'd guess not many. Trademarks can get lost into the realm of generics, and that's not a good way to protect your brand value.

So is Google doomed to become just another word in the dictionary (still attached to search activities long after the company itself is dead and gone) thanks to the loss of its unique company image? Don't bet on it. Xerox is still a very big player in its industry, sporting a $12 billion market cap, and Johnson & Johnson dwarfs Google's $126 billion with its massive $178 billion market footprint (even after the Band-Aid concert). These companies have the scale to face branding issues without losing their identity.

If anybody should worry about fading into obscure generalities, it's tiny TiVo, beset on all sides by rival video recorder makers, finicky cable and satellite partners, and TV studios that don't like to see their commercials skipped at will. But thanks to the U.S. patent system (um, wait -- is that a trademark?), TiVo still has a fighting chance. There have even been rumors about Google buying TiVo outright. Now that would make for some interesting linguistic challenges.

FedEx and TiVo are bothMotley Fool Stock Advisorselections, and Johnson & Johnson is anIncome Investorrecommendation.

Closing credits (also recently added to the OED): Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns none of the stocks discussed here. Foolish disclosure is more than a mere Band-Aid, and Anders would be happy to FedEx you a Photoshopped Xerox of his holdings. Or you can just Google it. Just keep a Kleenex handy.



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