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I know that Google got its name from the word googol (10100), and that Google/google referring the search engine/using the search engine are recent additions to the dictionary. Their definitions are easily found for such meaning (example).

However, just for kicks, I did a Google Ngram search for the word "google" and "Google" and got some interesting results:

enter image description here

There is a drastic spike in the use of the word "google" around 1900, well before the website, or even the internet, existed. There is then some use throughout the next hundred years, where it starts to climb (because we now have Google).

Clearly this word had some meaning in the past - does anyone know what it was?

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Is it possible that this is a Y2K bug? :-) –  T.E.D. Oct 21 '11 at 18:06
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It's worth noting that Ngrams is case sensitive, and Google' is far more common than 'google'. It's also worth mentioning that if you include up to 2008 the post-2000 results dwarf everything that went before. –  fluteflute Oct 21 '11 at 21:00
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Have you tried searching on Google? –  nhinkle Oct 22 '11 at 19:16
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@nhinkle: Technically, that is the result of a specialized Google search. –  Piskvor Oct 24 '11 at 12:31
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@Jim: At the bottom of Ngram results, you can click on the years to see the actual books that contain it, to see which words Ngram is recognising as "Google", and in what context. This is what Hugo appears to have done. That's as credible as it gets, because it explains the Ngram results precisely. –  ShreevatsaR Oct 26 '11 at 17:35
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7 Answers

up vote 53 down vote accepted
+300

Here's an attempt for an answer drawing from credible and/or official sources. The best sources we have are the books themselves that create the Ngram in the question. If we click through to some of the results between 1898 and 1902 (for example), we can categorise them as follows:

Variation of goggle-eyed:

  1. "Gilded, gilded o'er, gilt edge on, glorious, google eyed, got a big head, got a bundle'jsgot a drop in the eye, got a smile on, got the gravel rash, greetin fou', groatable, groggy, gutter legged, guzzled. "
  2. "He was google-eyed and spiflicated."
  3. "Say, Mr. Pierce, couldn't you swipe that google-eye from Mrs. de Rutyer. She makes me so nervous when she points it at me that I feel like dropping."
  4. "On, say, drop dat google-eye, said Rade, in disgust."
  5. "Aha! And so you'd like to call my son after that google-eyed idiot you were engaged to before I met you !"
  6. "His tongue was much too large for his mouth, his legs were much too weak for his body, and his dull google-eyes stared and rolled like an idiot's."
  7. "It made him google-eyed and he walked off the Curb."
  8. "I'm sure that archers google-eyed"
  9. "Common Rock Bass ; Red-eye ; Google-eye" aka goggle-eye

Synonym for surf-scooter duck, aka goggle-nose:

  1. Popular synonyms: Surf Duck. Sea Duck. Horse-head Coot. Surf Coot. Google-nose. Gray Coot, etc."
  2. Popular synonyms: Surf Duck. Sea Duck. Horse-head Coot. Surf Coot. Google-nose. Gray Coot, etc."
  3. Popular synonyms: Surf Duck. Sea Duck. Horse-head Coot. Surf Coot. Google-nose. Gray Coot, etc."

Onomatopoeic gurgle noise:

  1. "He broke into a light Irish song, dancing the baby up and down until the little one bade fair to google itself out of breath."
  2. "A hurried visit to the cellar and the peculiar "google-google" sound led to a barrel which had been full of No. 1 Coach varnish"

Definite OCR error:

  1. "Goods manufactured."
  2. "Congleton"
  3. "1. O E. French, Lura Phillips, WF Chevalier, OE Klingeman, Carrie Coogle FE Buck, David Williams, ATS Owen,"

OCR is optical character recognition, the method of scanning pages and automatically attempting (not always successfully) to convert it to plain searchable text.

Unknown:

  1. "And vowed a most tremendous vow, By the great Google Tree,"
  2. "It 's right over yander at de head er de dreen — A-wish, wish, wishin' — Whar de branch runs google, an' de leaves is green— Des a-wishin'." Possibly nonsense/onomatopoeic from a child's lullaby.
  3. "It 's right over yander at de head er de dreen— A-wish, wish, wishin'— Whar de branch runs google, an' de leaves is green— Des a-wishin'."
  4. "Googie, George E" a soldier's surname, is it Googie or Google? Probably the same as the surnames below.

Unknown, Google Books image illegible, probably OCR error:

  1. "A. B "Google", John Carr, George Courtright", OCR error of a soldier's surname
  2. "OE KUngeman, Carrie Google. FE Buck, David Williams". Another surname.
  3. "Google Chas. W. Griffin Ivan Grimm Wm. F. Harris Krnest". Another surname.
  4. "FB Clayton, JP Google and others", OCR error of a surname
  5. "so they sit under the trees making merry over "google" and cake"
  6. "Googie, splendid color and markings, beat a nice housebred cat, not as clear or distinct in color." I think this says Googie and is the name of a cat in a list.
  7. "Not one of the pets Ever quarrels or scolds; They sleep and they wake And they crow and they coo And they talk in the language Of Google -goo-goo, (And they all take In Babyville there Are animals. too; tjaby kittens and bears". Probably nonsense word.

Unknown, no preview:

  1. Link
  2. Link
  3. Link, possibly OCR error from Matlese text
  4. Link
  5. Link
  6. Link
  7. Link
  8. Link
  9. Link
  10. Link
  11. Link
  12. Link, from a Spanish-English pronouncing dictionary
  13. Link

Summary:

  • So the most common by far is google-eyed, a variation of goggle-eyed. The next is a variation of google-nose as a synonym for a duck that's also known goggle-nose.
  • Next comes goggle as an onomatopoeic gurgle noise.
  • There are some clear OCR errors (Goods, Congleton).
  • There are quite a few surnames, at least one is an OCR error of the American Coogle, another could be Googie and I suspect the others were misspelling in American documents.
  • Other uses appear to be either nonsense, onomatopoeic, made-up rhyming words or simply unknown.

Finally, although we didn't encounter them in this sample, the OCR often gets the published date wrong and a recent book about the Google search engine may appear in the results as if it were published in the early 1900s.

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8  
Comprehensive response, nice work. –  Ashley Steel Oct 24 '11 at 10:22
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+1. I wanted to make this answer and then I decided to check whether anyone else had. ;-) –  jprete Oct 24 '11 at 12:27
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+1, Great answer; you cover it all. Regarding the wrong published date - there are also instances when the book is classified according to the first published date and it has introduction or references that were written later. –  Unreason Oct 25 '11 at 9:13
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+1. Wow, you really did a lot of research. –  ApprenticeHacker Oct 28 '11 at 11:33
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In Australia a googie is an egg, as in "How do you want your googie, hard or soft?" It is an expression I used most of my life and so did everyone I knew. So it wasn't a family thing. Also as an expression full as a goog or full as an egg. Pronounced like would, not as in goulg, but it is not spelt like would. Maybe it was an expression modified by a cricketer, I don't know. –  user36490 Jan 26 '13 at 12:45
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As @Hugo points out OED has a mention of 'google eyes' from 1540.

This comes from the 'The Byrth of Mankynde", the English translation of Eucharius Roslin's Der Rosengarten, a very popular book on childbirth and care of infants first published in German in 1512.

The relevant section describes a cure for strabismus in children:

"Of google eyes, lokynge a squynt

Yf the chylde have google eyes or that it loke a squynt, then fyrst set the cradel in such a place that the lyght maye come directelye and ryght in the chyldes face neyther in the one syde neyther in the other, neyther above the heade, leste it tome the syghte after the lyght. Also marke on whiche syde that the eyes do gogle, and let the lyghte come unto it on the contrary syde so to retorne the syght. And in the nyght season set a candell on the contrarye syde so that by this meane the goglynge of the eyes may be retorned to the ryghte place. And farther it shall be good to hange clothes of divers and freshe coloures on the contrary syde and spetially of the coloure of lyght grene or yelowe for the chylde shall have pleasure to beholde these strange coloures, and in retornynge the eye syghte towarde suche thynges it shalbe occasion to rectifye the syght agayne". (quoted in Rick Bowers 1999, "Thomas Phaer and The boke of chyldren (1544)" page 75)


'Google eye' and 'google eyed' in the more descriptive sense can be found almost as far back, though with spellings like gogle or goggle:

  • A book of instructions of how to teach and learn Latin from 1570. :

    "And as a foote of woode is a plaine shew of a manifest maime, even so feete, in our English versifiing, without quantitie and joyntes, be sure signes, that the verse is either borne deformed, unnatural or lame, and so verie unseemlie to look upon, except to men that be gogle eied them selves."

    - Roger Ascham The scholemaster. (1570)

  • A play performed in 1601 :

    "Give him warning, admonition, to forsake his sawcy glavering grace and his goggle eie"

    - Ben Jonson Poëtaster, Or, His Arraignement: A Comical Satyre (played 1601, print 1616)

  • A Dutch-English dictonary from 1665

    "Puyl.oogen, Swoln Eyes, or standing out, or goggle eyed
    Puyl oogende zijn, To be Goggle-eyed"

    - Henry Hexham/Daniel Manly: A copious English and Netherdutch Dictionary (1665)

  • A Treatise on Astrology from 1712

    "Persons that are born under Leo, are generally of a full large Body, Courageous and Stout, Hair of dark Flaxen, or yellowish; great Head, gogle Eyes, of a generous Disposition, an aspiring Brain, and an active Body."

    The Universal Library: Or, Compleat Summary of Science (1712)

  • And less commonly the verb: to goggle

    No sooner dit the Knight percieve her,
    But streight he Fell into a Fever,
    Inflam'd all over with disgrace,
    To be seen by her in such a place;
    Which made him hang his Head and scoul,
    And wink, and goggle like an Owl

    Samuel, Butler Hudibras 1684 (quoted from edition of 1704)

  • Interestingly Webster1828 has an entry for this verb, together with adjective and noun:

    GOG''GLE, v.i. [L. celo; or from gog.]
    To strain or roll the eyes.
    And wink and goggle like an owl.
    GOG''GLE, a. Having full eyes; staring.
    GOG''GLE, n. A strained or affected rolling of the eye.

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An erroneously marked "first instance" of Google in written text is in 1903.

It was used because hobo had class connotation that caused such offence "that it would hardly be safe to repeat" (repeat from his last work).

So Google was a nonsense or nonce word coined to create a class of person outside the current (at the time) class system.

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There's a 1540 "Of google eyes, lokynge a squynt" in the OED. –  Hugo Dec 19 '13 at 11:31
    
I guess that reviewer got it wrong then :D –  Matt Эллен Dec 19 '13 at 11:42
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I had a look in the OED and it says that google has been used when to speak of a cricket ball as a verb since the early 1900's as a back-formation from googly (−> A ball which breaks from the off, though bowled with apparent leg-break action.)

google, v. Cricket.

[Back-formation from googly n.]

intr. Of the ball: to have a ‘googly’ break and swerve. Of the bowler; to bowl a googly or googlies; also (trans.), to give a googly break to (a ball). Hence 'googler, a googly bowler.

1907 Badminton Mag. Sept. 289 The googlies that do not google.

1909 Westm. Gaz. 5 July 7/4 Mr. Lockhart, having ‘googled’ to no purpose from the ‘nursery’ end.

1923 Daily Mail 9 July 11 In R. H. Bettington they have a googler who might triumph over the best of wickets.

1928 Daily Tel. 12 June 19/2 Constantine..was out to a semi-yorker, which also ‘googled’.

1930 Ibid. 25 Apr. 8/5 Grimmett..can spin the ball and google it.

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Google's Ngram database is built automatically from scanned books. This is an error-prone process. Google blames words occurring too early on scanning (OCR) issues, i.e. the original book contains a word similar to "Google".

Spikes at 1900, 1905 are common in ngram searches. Google does not give an explanation, but it seems likely that books which could not be dated were accidentally filed under 1900 or 1905.

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Wow! I checked some of those 1905 "internet" spikes and they're really ""interest", "Internat.", Infernet", "spina interna" or a 2007 book. Also there's real use of "google" as an onomatopoeic gurgling word. –  Hugo Oct 21 '11 at 23:18
    
and yahoo can refer to an unruly person. –  Peter Olson Oct 22 '11 at 0:11
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In the interest of comprehensive research: imdb.com/character/ch0007147 –  JeffSahol Oct 22 '11 at 17:22
    
"Congressional Record - Page 5304 Etats-Unis. Congress - 1935 - ‎ It is available on the Wide Area Information Server (WAIS) through the Internet and via asynchronous dial-in. Internet users can access the database by using the World Wide Web;" In actual fact the document is dated January 16 1999. How did 1999 get confused with 1935?! –  Mari-Lou A Dec 19 '13 at 8:42
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Google was never a word as such before the eponymous search engine.

As @JeffSahol notes, there was the comic strip character Barney Google. Also it was sometimes used as an onomatopoeic variant of goo goo ga ga for pre-speech babies' vocalisations. Which I suspect was a factor in the 1930s coinage googol (leading to googolplex), since it ostensibly came from a child.

Unsurprisingly, the "mis-spelling" googleplex now outnumbers googolplex by a factor of 10 on Google!

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The "Googleplex" is the name of the Google headquarters. –  Simon Richter Oct 21 '11 at 19:03
    
oic. Well I suppose they would assiduously index that one, wouldn't they? But actually, in GoogleBooks the -gol form is 2-3 times more common. –  FumbleFingers Oct 21 '11 at 19:09
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@FumbleFingers But if you include post-2000 and both upper and lower case, Google HQ has taken the lead. –  Hugo Oct 21 '11 at 23:11
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First thing I thought of was "googly eyes", but your ngrams search also pulled up a lot of hits on Barney Google, a comic strip character. Check out the Googly Eyes article in Wikipedia and links from there.

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Interesting. However, Barney Google was created in 1919, which, according the Ngram in the question, is (approximately) the lowest usage of "google" after 1900 (although the comic's popularity does explain the increase for the following years). –  Jim Oct 21 '11 at 17:38
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Yes, it looks like the popularity of "google eyes" gave Barney his name. –  JeffSahol Oct 21 '11 at 20:00
    
Or they were named for him. The article cites no sources and has no references, and Barney Google is the earliest example. –  Jim Oct 21 '11 at 21:11
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@Jim Google/goggle/goggly eyes came before Barney Google. Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe used goggle eyes. –  Hugo Oct 24 '11 at 9:33
    
There's a song, too. –  John Lawler Dec 20 '13 at 2:22
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