"Search" as a mass noun

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Tue Jun 19 05:18:07 UTC 2012

On Tue, Jun 19, 2012 at 12:31 AM, Neal Whitman wrote:
> As I listened to last week's episode of Lexicon Valley (which was a great
> episode, BTW; it showed how Ben and other language anachronism watchers
> for Mad Men and Downton Abbey have just scratched the surface), host Mike
> Vuolo broke to deliver the sponsor message from Bing. He said: "Everybody uses
> search; we've been using it for years." Also, the pre-show sponsor message
> said, "Only Bing brings together the best of search with Facebook and
> Twitter."
> When I finished listening to that podcast, I listened to the TechStuff
> podcast, whose title this week is "The Future of Search".
> This usage of "search" to mean "an application for searching the internet"
> (not ordinary searching in the physical world) reminds me of mass nouns
> for utilities, such as "water, gas, and electricity." Has anyone else been
> noticing it?

Mass-noun "search" has lately been matched by mass-noun "social" for
"social media." In a 2010 On Language column on new "social" lingo, I
quoted a TechCrunch post title, "Social Today Feels Like Search a
Decade Ago: Lots of Noise and Lots of Spam."


I don't think "an application for searching the internet" is the best
definition -- it tends to stand for "search engine technology"
considered broadly. Within the industry, it can sometimes have more
specialized uses, referring to "search engine marketing" and the like.

"Mobile" (for "mobile computing") is another term that's gone the
mass-noun route.


Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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