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Chains of Consequence - Jazz, Charlie Brown, and Maths: The Strange Origins of ‘Google’

Updated: Apr 4, 2020

By Tom Anderson

What's the connection between V.C. Vickers, Governor of the Bank of England, (here photographed in 1910 by an unknown person) and Google LLC?

THE sun is setting— Can’t you hear A something in the distance Howl!!? I wonder if it’s— Yes!! it is That horrid Google On the prowl!!!

The Google Book, V. C. Vickers, 1913​

Around us today, the word ‘Google’ is ubiquitous. Few companies have achieved the heights of not only dominating so much of our everyday lives, but even making their name into a commonplace verb: to google something, to look it up. Younger generations cannot grasp the difficulties that their forefathers went to when consulting information sources, or that some information (such as song lyrics or lists of plausible names for fictional characters from foreign countries) was simply impossible to find. Those of us who remember the early internet, perhaps most of all, can remember what a sea change the rise of Google was. Gone were the early search engines which, infamously, made it impossible to search for the band The Who (because they ignored common words like ‘the’ and ‘who’). Google now dominates most, albeit not all, national markets for search engines, and has given birth or acquired dozens more interests, from email providers to operating systems to phones and smart home systems. But just where did that name ‘Google’ come from?

As with ‘jeep’ in my previous article about Popeye, it is very hard for us now to ever imagine that the word ‘google’ could be an amusingly meaningless, nonsensical word. The ultimate origins of the term are believed to probably lie in a jazz song from the year 1900 called ‘The Goo-Goo Song’. Ironically enough, this is one of the hardest things to look up through Google, because most results instead relate to the US band founded in 1986 called The Goo Goo Dolls. They in turn took their name from a popular toy of that decade, which (like, most probably, the 1900 jazz song) relates to the onomatopoeic sound stereotypically made (in English sources) by babies: ‘goo-goo, ga-ga’. The latter part of that phrase, of course, gave us the Queen song Radio Ga Ga (directly derived from a sound made by Roger Taylor’s child as a baby) and therefore, ultimately, the more recent singer Lady Gaga who took her stage name from the Queen song.

In the Edwardian-era jazz context, the connection between ‘goo-goo’ and ‘google’ appears to stem from the fact that the phrases ‘goo-goo eyes’ and ‘googly eyes’ were used interchangeably as variants of one another. Originally this phrase seems to have implied someone gazing adoringly at the object of their affection (also as in ‘making eyes at them’, ‘making sheep’s eyes at them’, etc.) but in modern English, especially American English, ‘googly eyes’ has mutated to specifically imply large and cartoonish eyes instead—apparently due to confusion and mixture with ‘goggly eyes’ (as in ‘eyes like goggles’). It was this latter meaning which US cartoonist Billy DeBeck seized on when, in 1919, he introduced a comic strip originally titled Take Barney Google, F’rinstance. As one can tell from the title, like other American comic strips of the era (such as Krazy Kat, The Katzenjammer Kids and later the aforementioned Thimble Theatre / Popeye) the strip was written using phonetic renditions of accented and slang terms to reflect realistic situations, rather than artificially embracing standard English.

Barney Google comic strip by Billy DeBeck from 17th of July 1922

Barney Google’s name reflected his big ‘googly’ eyes. He was a small man, obsessed with sports and constantly henpecked by his much larger wife Lizzie (who later sued him for divorce and disappeared from the strip). DeBeck would bring in real contemporary sporting events into the strip. This reflects the fact that the strip began in the sporting pages of the Chicago Herald and Chicago Examiner, but it was soon being distributed by the King Features Syndicate across the United States. Three years after the strip’s inception, it saw a massive spike in popularity when DeBeck introduced a plotline where Barney optimistically bought a clearly terrible racehorse named ‘Spark Plug’ (itself a relatively new and exciting technological term for the audience). Some later writers described Spark Plug as the ‘Snoopy of the 1920s’, as he led to a huge surge of public interest and merchandising. In 1923, a novelty song based on Barney Google and Spark Plug was released, which became the best-known novelty song of the decade, and was later covered by well-known names such as Eddie Cantor, the Andrews Sisters and Spike Jones. The song’s lyrics compare Mr Google favourably to such major public figures as politicians William Jennings Bryan and Charles Evan Hughes, and actors Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino.

In the face of this huge cultural phenomenon, many American kids of the 1920s received ‘Sparky’ as a nickname because of Barney Google and Spark Plug. One of these, remarkably, was Charles Monroe Schulz, who received the nickname when he was only days old thanks to his uncle being a fan of the Barney Google strip. Schulz was effectively predestined from birth to become a cartoonist himself, with his early work appearing under the nom de plume ‘Sparky’; he went on to create a comic strip that would surpass even Barney Google in its cultural impact. The latter, remarkably, is still going under the name of Barney Google and Snuffy Smith, the latter being a hillbilly character introduced in the 1930s who took over the strip (as Popeye did to Thimble Theatre); Google still appears in the title despite disappearing from the strip for decades at a time!

Schulz's creation was Peanuts (a name which he hated but the syndicate insisted on). It would take numerous articles to discuss the cultural impact of Charlie Brown, Snoopy and their friends; not only did Peanuts directly inspire many other successful cartoonists such as Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes), Scott Adams (Dilbert), Maurice Dodd (The Perishers) and Jim Davis (Garfield), but both the strips and their animated adaptations affected generations of Americans. One only has to look at the ‘Complete Peanuts’ anthology released after Schulz’s death covering all 50 years of the strip’s existence, each volume possessing an introduction by a public figure. The names run the gamut of public figures throughout American society and pop culture: Garrison Keillor, Walter Cronkite, Matt Groening (of The Simpsons), Bill Meléndez, the cast of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Billie Jean King and then-incumbent President Barack Obama...

Peanuts’ success stemmed from an initial joke in the 1950s of treating kids like adults in the context of their lives, and generally bringing forth an edge of harsh cynicism where it was unexpected, only then to be counterpointed with something heartwarming. Contemporary cultural and historical phenomena were referenced, such as the launch of Sputnik 1, the 1964 presidential election and so on. It is a measure of the strip’s longevity that the kids started out as fans of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (from 1955) and ended as fans of Harry Potter more than four decades later, all without ageing much of course. One major event of the 1960s referenced in the strip was the Apollo moon landing, which was a two-way process. Many astronauts and other NASA workers were fans of the strip. The two spacecraft for Apollo 10, the dry run mission for Apollo 11, were named Charlie Brown and Snoopy; Schulz also drew mission-related artwork. Under their space helmets, astronauts wore an audio headset with a white top and black padded earphones, which was inevitably nicknamed ‘the Snoopy cap’ due to its resemblance to Snoopy’s ears.

What does all this have to do with Google? Surprisingly little! The other Google took quite a different path.

Vincent Cartwright Vickers was an important economist in the City of London whom had risen to the hallowed post of Governor of the Bank of England. This did not mean he did not have the time, in 1913, to release an illustrated book of children’s verse titled The Google Book. This publication, full of surreal, colourful illustrations, is about a number of fictional and fantastic birds, such as the Lemonsqueezer, the Poggle and the Swank. In this Vickers was building on a tradition of nonsense verse and fantastic creatures which had been established in English children’s literature by Lewis Carroll (the Alice stories and, specifically, Jabberwocky) and Edward Lear (best known for The Owl and the Pussycat). Vickers’ Google is a malevolent predator that stalks the colourful birds of the book. It is not clear whether Vickers was inspired by the jazz song, the cricket term ‘a googly’, or something else. The cricket term is first recorded in 1900, the same year as the jazz song, so the two may possibly be related themselves.

In 1918, the American mathematician Edward Kasner wanted a name for a very large number – 1 followed by 100 zeroes. He asked his nine-year-old son Milton to come up with a name, and Milton suggested ‘Googol’. It remains unclear whether Milton made up the name out of his own head (after all, all the other Googles are ultimately derived from the sound made by babies) or was thinking of either the jazz song or the picture book—though given the latter’s limited run, it seems unlikely. Kaser popularised the term, along with ‘googolplex’, which is 1 followed by a googol of zeroes!

Tying the threads back together, all this was referenced in Peanuts in the strip for January 20th, 1963:

LUCY: Schroeder, what do you think the odds are that you and I will get married someday?

SCHROEDER: Oh, I’d say about “googol” to one

LUCY: How much is a “googol”?

SCHROEDER: 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

LUCY: *sigh*

Larry Page's business card, photographed in 1998 by Evawen and licenced by the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 generic licence

We finally come to the Google we all know and love [citation needed]. The search engine began in January 1996 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, two PhD students at Standford University. A third man, Scott Hassan, was also involved at first but left before the company was founded. Their new search engine was superior to its predecessors because it looked at relationships between websites, considering relevance by number of pages that linked back to the site. It therefore did not fall victim to the tricks which could fool older search engines, such as pornographic websites simply including words like ‘car’ on a page somewhere to appear on rankings for that topic. The project was initially named ‘BackRub’ to reference that it checked back-links to a site, but eventually the name was changed to Google. This was a misspelling of the mathematical term ‘Googol’ from above, reflecting the idea that the search engine was intended to provide large amount of information. Also, Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California is termed the ‘Googleplex’ in reference to googolplex.

With Google now dominating the world, it is interesting to reflect that its name has been coined throughout the last century and more; chains of consequence are not always obvious here, and given its connection with baby-talk, it might be more accurate to describe the appearances of Google through history as constant reinvention. Given the company’s own history of pushing into new areas, perhaps that is a legacy it would be pleased to associate itself with.

My thanks to Sea Lion Press forum user "Walpurgisnacht", whose comment on my earlier Popeye article helped inspire this one.



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