The Etymology of “Google” is a Comedy of Errors

“Google” has an interesting etymology. By definition, “googol” is 1 followed by 100 zeroes. The name was chosen by a nine-year old boy by the name of Milton Sirotta. Milton’s uncle, Edward Kasner was a mathematician who had a need for a number of that magnitude, and when he asked his nephew what he should call the number, his nephew replied, “Google,” probably from one of his favorite cartoon strips, Barney Google. According to Sol Steinmetz, author of There’s a Word for It, the naming of the googol, was pretty simple:

“When [Kasner] asked his young nephew to think up a name for a very big number, a number with a hundred zeroes after it, Milton, after a moment’s thought, answered ‘a googol!’ Though probably influenced by the name of the then very popular comic-strip character Barney Google, Milton’s coinage became important in advanced mathematics” (italics in the original) (Steinmetz 86).

The history of the word is unclear as to whether the mathematician accidentally misspelled “Google” or spelled it differently in order to make it a unique term. However, Kasner took the googol, an already immense number, and raised it to the googolth power and called it a googolplex. It was, at the time the largest number with a name and clear definition.

Barney Google was a popular cartoon strip that began in 1919 and was drawn by Billy DeBeck. It was among the most popular strips of the 1920s prompting two hit songs, “Barney Google (with the Goo-goo Googly Eyes)” and “Come on, Spark Plug.” Spark Plug was the name of Barney Google’s horse, and it became the nickname of the then, future cartoonist Charles Schulz, who was given the moniker as a child and was known by friends and family throughout his life as “Sparky Schulz.” Many of the Barney Google serialized storylines were followed by so many readers that they became media sensations. Therefore, when Milton Sirotta named the googol in the late 1930s, he was drawing from an influential force in American culture.

barney google

Barney Google and his mighty thoroughbred.

In addition, the word “goggle-eyed,” describing someone with bulging or rolling eyes, has been around since 1711, but due to the comic strip and the song, the word googly-eyed temporarily supplanted “goggle-eyed” in the American lexicon in 1924. Now, either term is used to describe that facial characteristic.

So, in 1919, the word “google” was born as the name of a cartoon character. In 1940, the term was altered to “googol” to describe a number with 1 followed by 100 zeros. In 1997, the term took on a new meaning when Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Sean Anderson were brainstorming a name for their new search engine that had been called “BackRub” during the development process. According to New World, New Words: On Language Change and Word Formation in Internet English and Romanian, Otilia Pacea states:

“Sean verbally suggested the googolplex, and Larry responded verbally with a shortened form, googol. Sean executed a search of the internet domain name registry database to see if the newly suggested name was still available for registration and use. Sean was not an infallible speller, and he made the mistake of searching for the name spelled as, which he found to be available. Larry liked the name, and within hours he took the step of registering the name for himself and Sergey” (italics in the original) (Pacea 94).

Thus, the word “google” went from the original spelling to, perhaps by mistake, an alternate spelling, and then, by mistake, it reverted back to its original spelling. Google, Incorporated has its headquarters in Mountain View, California, and, in homage to Sirotta and Kasner, they call the campus on which the company is headquartered by the pun “Googleplex.”


Googleplexing in style.

Postscript: The Barney Google comic strip is still in existence but under a different name. In the comic story, Barney Google was a city-slicker who gambled on the horses and got himself into trouble with his wife and other gamblers. Eventually, he ventured to western North Carolina where he met and hid out with a family led by Snuffy and Louise (Loweezy) Smith. Google stayed there through the 1940s and into 1950 before he returned to the city and was written out of the strip except for infrequent cameos.  That cartoon strip is now called “Snuffy Smith.”

Barney Google with Snuffy

Barney and Snuffy collaborate on a moonshine operation.

2 responses

  1. Wow! While I knew of Schultz’s nickname, I never heard of its origin until today.

  2. Although that was a sidebar of the essay, I’m glad I could help.

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