Joogling and lexicological engineering

A number of blogs – enough that I doubt that I need to link to them – are trying to modify the top result of Google searches for the word Jew by pointing to the relevant entry in Wikipedia rather than the previous top response, an anti-semitic website which we will not be linking to.

I doubt that I will face any objections from the other bloggers here by joining in. By all evidence, the effort has been successful.

However, I should note that the problem is primarily lexicological.

Jew appears, according to Google, approximately 1.5 million times on the web. Jews, in contrast, appears some 5.5 million times and Jewish some 13 million times. The top link for Jews is the website for “Jews for Jesus”, while for Jewish it is a commercial website at www.jewish.com. “Jews for Jesus” is, perhaps, not the ideal choice for the top site at Google for Jews, but at least it isn’t a plainly anti-semitic organisation.

Most English words for group identity appear in at most two forms – singular and plural, with the singular acting as the adjective. The only other comparable case I can think of in English – Turk, Turks, Turkish – has a comparable frequency distribution to what you get for Jew, Jews and Jewish. We feel more comfortable saying He’s Turkish than He’s a Turk, just as people are more likely to describe someone as Jewish than as a Jew. I’m somewhat curious why this should be. I sense little difference between saying someone is American or an American, but saying someone is a Jew or even a Turk always sounds a little bit like a condemnation when compared to Jewish or Turkish.

I have a theory about why. We hear the word Jew used with a pejorative intent more often than Jewish, and thus we are naturally inclined not to use when we have no pejorative intentions. This actually fits well with most theories about language acquistion. But it poses a problem: Why do we hesitate to use the word Turk?

My hypothesis is that the negative meaning we link to Jew, from the use of formulas like the Jew in racist screeds, has actually become attached to the formula itself. The German or the American is perhaps a bit less striking to the ear, but still gives me an expectation that it will be followed by a gross generalisation, stereotype, or piece of pure bollocks. For words like German or American, this has no impact on Google scores because the adjective is identical to the singular noun.

This effort at Google-bombing is harmless enough, but the real problem is in the relatively uncommon morphology of the lexeme Jew/Jews/Jewish. I wonder if a better approach might have been to try to reclaim the word Jew from the racism associated, albeit subtly, with its use. I am fairly sure that the negative connotations associated with the word are no less present in the minds of Jewish anglophones than other people. For instance, Jewish bloggers might prepare list of other bloggers, linking to each with the word Jew.

Perhaps not. The whole idea of preparing a list of people and “marking” them with the word Jew clearly recalls the Holocaust. But then, this is really a question of lexicology, and this is how successful lexicological campaigns have been conducted in the past: “Black is beautiful.” “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.” In order to reclaim a word, you have to use it.

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About Scott Martens

Scott is a US-raised Canadian living in Brussels with his American wife. His political background is well to the left of centre, even for Europe, and is very interested in immigration, cultural integration and language policy issues. He is presently working against a deadline on his doctorate in computational linguistics and is on hiatus. Wrote Pedantry, also on hiatus.

3 thoughts on “Joogling and lexicological engineering

  1. Though note Google’s page on using its search engine:
    “Google now uses stemming technology. Thus, when appropriate, it will search not only for your search terms, but also for words that are similar to some or all of those terms. If you search for ‘pet lemur dietary needs’, Google will also search for ‘pet lemur diet needs’, and other related variations of your terms. Any variants of your terms that were searched for will be highlighted in the snippet of text accompanying each result.”

    — Google was, for a long time, unusual in not stemming search terms. But now a search for “jews” will return results containing only the word “jew”, as, perhaps, will a search for “jewish” (depending on the stemming algorithm they use; the standard one, Porter’s, doesn’t handle –ish endings).

    To be honest, this “Google bombing” exercise is to me more indicative of the lack of influence of web logs than anything else. If this were an issue on Google’s RADAR, they would have bumped the top, antisemitic, link down the rankings manually. But note also Google’s explanation of/apologia for the results — bearing in mind that the stuff about it being “objective” should be taken with a pinch of salt. Google tweak their rankings all the time to suppress spam and other commercially undesirable sites.

  2. Following your “by all evidence” is very interesting when you look at the “jewwatch” link: apparently the hosting company took soom action. The link now shows nothing but “To change this page, upload your website into the public_html directory”!.
    The anti-semitism can now be found via cach only…..

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