Google’s Online Dictionary: Sub-Optimal, Rubbishy 

Sure, we all turn to Google to launch our web searches and often find what we were looking for in just a few clicks. But, has anyone noticed just how bad Google’s online dictionary services are?

As “the most powerful company in the world” with close to 90 percent of the world’s internet search market – even their company name has become synonymous with online web searching – you’d think the company’s “Google Dictionary,” launched in 2009, would be better.

Take, for example, the very term “Google Dictionary.” If I wished to look it up, perhaps I’d enter the two-word phrase into Google’s dictionary itself. Certainly, it ought to know what it means.

To get to the dictionary, I first type “Google Dictionary” into the search field of my Chrome browser. When I arrive at Google’s online dictionary, however, I immediately notice that the primary definition I see for the phrase comes from Wikipedia. “Google Dictionary is an online dictionary service of Google that can be accessed with the “define” operator and other similar phrases in Google Search,” it says, not exactly putting it in plain language. Then, if I type “Google Dictionary” into the actual Google Dictionary search field (or “define” operator) nothing happens. So, Google Dictionary has apparently never heard of itself.

Often Google Dictionary directly outsources to Merriam-Webster. For example, let’s say you suffer from “iatrophobia,” or fear of doctors. Google punts on its definition and sends you directly to Cleveland Clinic and then to Merriam-Webster’s. Or, perhaps you’re a rancher and one of your horses suffers from what you think is “barn itch.” If you look it up on the ranch laptop, Google’s search engine immediately refers you to Merriam-Webster’s definition: “any contagious irritation of the skin of livestock (such as sarcoptic mange or ringworm).” Clearly, Google Dictionary is unconcerned with the plight of the husbandman (a word they have labeled as “archaic.”)

Or take the term “rubbishy” in this story’s headline. Perhaps you were inclined to look it up to see if it’s a real word, or simply rubbish. If you enter “rubbishy” into Google’s dictionary, you’ll find the definition: “of poor quality and little value.” No reference to the English concept of “rubbish” being items intended or suitable to be thrown out or tossed in a “rubbish bin,” and discarded, as in, “useless waste or rejected matter,” per Merriam-Webster’s definition. Just because something’s cheap, however, doesn’t mean it’s something to be tossed out.

Often, Google Dictionary just doesn’t provide definitions at all for words one might expect to see defined. Sarcoptic. Polyglottal. Solopsistic. Perseveration. Balzac. Gigglingly. Filial piety. Bridal brooch. Froppish. Gardyloo. Flam Paradiddle. Riproarious. Frondiferous. Galavant. Schlomo. Flammiferous. Reverse paristalsis. No wonder these haven’t worked when I tried them in Wordle.

Often, Google Dictionary provides feel-good definitions for words without providing contextual nuance. Take the term “badass,” for example. Most people understand it to be a quite familiar way of describing someone with an impressive knack for risk-taking who’s not afraid of courting danger and confrontation. Indeed, defines it as, “so tough, assertive, or independent as to be somewhat intimidating,” as in, “He is one badass sheriff who stops at nothing to solve a mystery.” If you try Google Dictionary, however, you get: “a tough, uncompromising, or intimidating person,” and then secondarily, a “formidably impressive person,” as in, “She is so wonderful, so sweet, so rad, so amazing; she’s a badass.” While a badass person might be “rad” and “amazing,” how often are they also “wonderful” and “sweet”? While it’s admirable to see Google try to decontextualize our gendered notions of badassery, how about at least offering some examples of women who are truly badasses, such as racecar drivers, ER docs, astronauts, or firefighters?

Sometimes, you can search for a word in a dictionary simply to find out whether the source contains any political or other biases. How ‘bout “cotton-pickin’,” for example? Imagine someone new to this country trying to determine the phrase’s meaning and origins. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary immediately informs the reader about to the term’s questionable connotations. It says the adjective “cotton-pickin’” means “damned.” Not only is it “widely considered offensive,” but it’s “seen as belittling labor that millions of Black people were forced to do in the southern United States from the late 18th century and into the 20th century, first as enslaved people and later as sharecroppers.” However, if you search the phrase in Google Dictionary, it’s simply defined as, “used for emphasis, especially with disapproval or reproach.” That’s it. No reference to race, slavery, cotton plantations or anything troubling of the sort.

A few years back, a controversy arose when a local government figure publicly used what sounded to some like the racist and offensive N-word, but was in fact the term for being “miserly” or “begrudging” in spending. To define this 9-letter word, which ends with “iggardly,” Merriam-Webster provides a warning that given the word’s “visual and auditory resemblance” to the “N-word,” the use of the term is “often taken to be offensive.” When Google Dictionary defines the term, however, it says nothing about possible racial offense, simply saying: “Not generous; stingy. [As in] “Serving out the rations with a *iggardly hand.”

As an academic tutor, I once asked a student to look up the term “peddler” as we read through a nineteenth-century novel. I assumed she would come up with something quaint, along the lines of Merriam-Webster’s “one who offers merchandise (such as fresh produce) for sale along the street or from door to door.” Ahh, I always wish we had more such folks peddling their wares and enlivening our towns and cobblestone streets. Instead, the student fell into the Google Dictionary trap, and defined a peddler cynically as “a person who sells illegal drugs or stolen goods,” also a “dealer,” “trafficker,” “pusher,” or “a person who promotes an idea or view persistently or widely.” With this definition, perhaps they should have put out a warning about labeling folks “peddlers.”

Sometimes, I like to check how a dictionary interprets the term to be “hoist by one’s own petard.” Merriam-Webster makes a reasonable stab at it by defining the phrase as, to be “victimized or hurt by one’s own scheme.” Helpfully, they provide the origins of the phrase in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” wherein the titular character says, “For ‘tis the sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petar[d],” where “petard” is defined as “a medieval explosive.” Google Dictionary, however, entirely botches the operation. By way of definition, it only says, to “have one’s plans to cause trouble for others backfire on one.” Had a human editor and not an algorithm generated that definition it might not have been redundant. In the end, it took a trip to Wikipedia, to find out what “petard” also means in French double-entendre, as it derives from the older Latin “pedere” meaning “to break wind.”

To end on a loftier note, an added bonus of Google Dictionary is its “People Also Ask” feature. Every time you look up a word these days, you’ll see the pressing question posed by millions: “Is ‘Yeet’ a word?” Not yet, people, not yet!



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