Will we bing? Having bung, will we ever google again?

Originally published May 30, 2009

The Name Inspector knew it. He just knew that Microsoft went with the name Bing because it makes a better verb than, say, Kumo, which sounds like a radio or TV station (like Seattle’s KOMO). Or that crazy killer dog dreamt up by Stephen King.

When people write about the name Google, they almost invariably mention that it has become a verb. Some entrepreneurs, including some of The Name Inspector’s own clients, think that a “verbable” name is highly desirable. Now here’s Miguel Helft reporting in yesterday’s New York Times that none other than Steve Ballmer thinks the name Bing has great potential to “verb up”. And the Bing home page actually conjoins Bing with another verb (“Bing & Decide”), just to nudge things in that direction, real subtle-like.

It’s kind of sad, really. The thing is, if Bing the name is going to become a verb, Bing the web app is going to have to offer a great experience that’s markedly different from the one Google gives us. People already have a verb for searching on the web. It’s google. They don’t need a new one.

Trademark sticklers will say that a company shouldn’t even want its name to become a verb, because that puts a company in danger of losing its trademark. Verbhood is a sure sign that a name has become a regular old word. When an originally trademarked name becomes widely used as a generic word, the name enters the public domain and can no longer be protected. That means anyone can legally use it. Some people call this “genericide”. Aspirincellophaneescalatorkerosenelaundromattrampoline, and yo-yo are all the ghosts of once living trademarks.

In fact, from the perspective of trademark law, trademarks are always supposed to be used as “adjectives” modifying generic nouns. It’s not “a Band-Aid”, it’s “a Band-Aid brand adhesive bandage”. It’s not “a Kleenex”, it’s “a Kleenex facial tissue”. But The Name Inspector is afraid this rule fights the tide of common usage. People always use trademarks as nouns.  You drive a Toyota. You drink a Coke. You use a Mac.

And let’s be realistic: becoming the paragon of a product category, with a name that’s a household word, is a nice kind of trademark problem to have. Many companies whose names are unofficially used as generic words have mounted campaigns to protect their trademarks and are doing quite nicely, thank you. For a while we were all xeroxing, but now we mostly photocopy, thanks largely to an aggressive Xerox PR campaign.

So, what to make of the name Bing? Some bloggers have had a negative reaction to it that seems mostly like a kick-Microsoft reflex. Some say it sounds “silly”. But Google sounded pretty silly back in the day, too. Bing actually has a lot going for it. It’s short, easy to pronounce, and easy to spell and type. It has a kind of friendly “ring” to it. In fact, according to Helft, the marketing people at Microsoft say the name is meant to represent a bell going off, to evoke that eureka moment we have when we find something. It’s “the sound of found”.

Bing, of course, is also a kind of cherry. Sort of reminds The Name Inspector of the name Macintosh, come to think of it. Helft says the marketing people at Microsoft weren’t going for that association, but it’s not a bad one for a search engine (or a “discovery engine”, as Bing is being called). Think “cherry picking”–cherries represent things that are carefully selected and highly valued. Like great search results.

So, while Bing isn’t a bad name,  it may not be destined to be a verb, for reasons that have nothing to do with its linguistic merits. But just in case, The Name Inspector wants to know: Would the past tense of bing be bang? Would the past participle be bung? That would be unfortunate.

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