The chosen people
If you do a Google search on "Jew" (or of course "jew"), you get a
"sponsored link" message from Google:
Offensive Search Results
We're disturbed about these results as well. Please read our note
As far as I can tell, "Jew" is the only word that elicits an "offensive
search" note and an apology from Google. There's a history here
that I don't think we've talked about before on Language Log.
First, Google's note, in full:
An explanation of our search results.
If you recently used Google to search for the word "Jew," you may have
seen results that were very disturbing. We assure you that the views
expressed by the sites in your results are not in any way endorsed by
Google. We'd like to explain why you're seeing these results when you
conduct this search.
A site's ranking in Google's search results is automatically determined
by computer algorithms using thousands of factors to calculate a page's
relevance to a given query. Sometimes subtleties of language cause
anomalies to appear that cannot be predicted. A search for "Jew" brings
up one such unexpected result.
If you use Google to search for "Judaism," "Jewish" or "Jewish people,"
the results are informative and relevant. So why is a search for "Jew"
different? One reason is that the word "Jew" is often used in an
anti-Semitic context. Jewish organizations are more likely to use the
word "Jewish" when talking about members of their faith. The word has
become somewhat charged linguistically, as noted on websites devoted to
Jewish topics such as these:
Someone searching for information on Jewish people would be more likely
to enter terms like "Judaism," "Jewish people," or "Jews" than the
single word "Jew." In fact, prior to this incident, the word "Jew" only
appeared about once in every 10 million search queries. Now it's likely
that the great majority of searches on Google for "Jew" are by people
who have heard about this issue and want to see the results for
Our search results are generated completely objectively and are
independent of the beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google.
Some people concerned about this issue have created online petitions to
encourage us to remove particular links or otherwise adjust search
results. Because of our objective and automated ranking system, Google
cannot be influenced by these petitions. The only sites we omit are
those we are legally compelled to remove or those maliciously
attempting to manipulate our results.
We apologize for the upsetting nature of the experience you had using
Google and appreciate your taking the time to inform us about it.
The Google Team
p.s. You may be interested in some additional information the
Anti-Defamation League has posted about this issue at
http://www.adl.org/rumors/google_search_rumors.asp. In addition, we
call your attention to Google's search results on this topic.
Apparently the whole thing started back in March 2004 when a Google
that a search on "Jew" brought up as its top item the anti-Semitic site
jewwatch.com and started a petition drive (via the site
removejewwatch.com) to have Google alter its search results. The
message above was Google's response: Google can't jiggle its algorithm
to change the ranking of particular sites (and of course it has no
power to remove sites from the net, though it can filter out sites so that they don't appear in searches at all), but it can warn its readers and
apologize to them. [2/20/07: Thanks to several readers for clarifying Google's problem here.]
The anti-Semitic site is still alive, but Google's search algorithm now
ranks it fifth in a search on "Jew", after two Wikipedia entries and
two links to the Judaism 101 site, all of them using "Jew" to mean
'Jewish person' in a perfectly ordinary and inoffensive way; from the
Judaism 101 site:
I do not claim to be a rabbi or an
expert on Judaism; I'm just a traditional, observant Jew who has put in
a lot of research.
(Note how ridiculous "a traditional, observant Jewish person" or
"traditionally, observantly Jewish" would sound.)
A search on "Jews" now gets the site as its fourth hit, and triggers
the "offensive search" warning. The site doesn't come up in the
first hundred hits on "Jewish" or "Judaism", and there's no warning for
these searches. Startlingly, a search on "jewwatch" itself gets
34,400 hits and no warning. Except in its name, the site seems to
consistently use "Jewish" rather than "Jew" as a prenominal
modifier. And Google HAS
in a sense meddled with the search
results to some extent, but only by replacing the site description [2/20/07: several corresondents have now explained that Google doesn't write this stuff itself, but usually gets its descriptions from the Open Directory Project]; the site's self-description
Frank Weltner, M.A. English &
Presents His Famous Scholarly Library of Factual Links Known Around the
The Jew Watch Project Is The Internet's
Largest Scholarly Collection of Articles on Jewish History
Free Educational Library for Private Study, Scholarship, and Research
has been replaced by the rather more cautious characterization
Archive of essays, articles and online
books about a perceived international Jewish conspiracy.
Meanwhile, other words that have uses as offensive epithets, or are
as offensive epithets, get no warning from
Google. Richard Parker reports from the Philippines that his
searches on the following items went through without comment from
Google (I give them all here in lower case; the tongue-in-cheek
characterizations are from Parker):
coon, frog, homsi ("the stupidest
people in Syria"), kike, kraut, kurd ("the second most reviled people
in Turkey"), laz ("the most reviled people in Turkey"), mick ("the
stupidest people in Europe"), nigger, paddy (see "mick"), pommy,
raghead, spic, yank
(The fourth hit for "nigger" is a site offering "nigger jokes, jew
jokes, racist jokes, spic jokes". Not a pleasant site.)
At this point, Parker ran out of racial/ethnic epithets, though he did
supply links to collections of Homsi and Paddy/Mick jokes. I
tried a few more items, with similarly negative results:
bohunk, chink, greaser, jap, paki,
polack, taffy, wop
A search on "homosexual" pulls up the homophobic Paul Cameron as the
fourth hit (and the parody-of-homophobia Betty Bowers site as the
eighth), but there's no warning from Google.
Now, the problem with "Jew"/"Jews" and "homosexual" (and, for that
matter, "Kurd" and "Laz") isn't really with the words themselves, but
with the way some people use them in some contexts; in this respect,
they're unlike "kike"and "Jap" and most of the other items above (as
applied to people), and more like the use of "French" by some people as
an insult. Nevertheless, we're inclined to blame the word rather
than the user of the word.
In certain contexts, these words are pretty much guaranteed to be
unfriendly, if not flat-out offensive. The noun "Jew" as a
prenominal modifier, as in "a Jew organization", is not at all
Jew-friendly (note the parallel to "Democrat" used as a prenominal modifier, commented on by Mark Liberman here
), and "the homosexual agenda" and "the homosexual
lifestyle" are probably not gay-friendly (though both have been used
mockingly by gay people). But there are other contexts in which
they're neutral, as you can see by looking at the results of Google
searches on them. And there are contexts in which alternatives
like "Jewish" are not much better; when you read "Jewish conspiracy"
(unhedged) or "Jewish terrorists", you know you're probably not in a
Jew-friendly space. Weltner could have called his site Jewish
Watch rather than the obviously in-your-face alternative he chose, but
that wouldn't have made the site any less anti-Semitic. And then
Google would probably have felt obliged to issue a warning about the
results of searches on "Jewish", with a very different rationale for
its warning from the one above.
zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 19, 2007 12:25 PM