Thursday, December 02, 2004

Backdating "Blog"

"Blog" is the new black. It's the hottest monosyllable in the language. It puts the lex in lexicography. This according to Merriam-Webster and the AP.

Editors had planned to include "blog" - the short term for Web log - in the 2005 annual update of both the print and online versions of Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary, said Arthur Bicknell, spokesman for the dictionary publisher.

But in face of demand, the company quickly added an early definition to some of its online sites, defining "blog" as "a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer."

Well, I've had it for months in my Online Etymology Dictionary. So boo-yah! But Amy called my attention to this sentence in the AP's piece: " 'Blog' began appearing in newspapers and magazines in 1999, according to the publisher's records."

I beat that, too. I found it in use from 1998. Found it on the Usenet, in fact, which is exactly the place you'd expect to find the earliest print reference for an Internet jargon term.

The bad news is, I wouldn't be able to do that today, thanks to the way Google has revamped its Newsgroup search function.

In 2001, Google took over the vast archive of Newsgroup posts -- roughly 1 billion of them, dating back to 1981 -- from Deja. I'm constantly updating the Online Etymology Dictionary with recent entries and evolutions in the English language. One of the most useful ways to get a fairly accurate date for the first use of a modern word or term is to find the first appearance of it in the Newsgroup archive.

But as of the first of the month, Google itself has dived into the newsgroup business. Google's team has relegated its wonderful Usenet archive to a secondary site. And since Google itself is literally brand-new at this, evidently it has decided that dated searches are not a priority, since it will be a while before Google's own groups accumulate a history.

I'm guessing about their motives. But I do know that, in revamping the search function, they eliminated the ability to search within dates -- say all the uses of "blog" between 1997 and 2000. By gradually narrowing the range of dates I entered in a search, I could home in on the first appearance of a word or phrase. I went there yesterday, looking for the first reference to "techno" as a style of dance music, but I came away empty.

Google will still list Usenet post search results by date -- but only with the most recent first. To get back to the first one, you have to go back through page after page. In the case of a word like "blog," that could take forever.

If I'm right and Google no longer has a function for date-specific searches of Usenet posts, they've robbed the Internet of a valuable research tool. I sent off a protest e-mail to them yesterday. So far all I've had back is a form letter.