I had no intention of writing about the new search engine Cuil, pronounced “cool” (a quick visit did not impress me), but the name was taken from Irish, which is catnip to this erstwhile Indo-Europeanist with a deep attachment to the Gaelic. The company says: “Cuil is an old Irish word for knowledge. For knowledge, ask Cuil.” I trust no one will be unduly shocked when I say that there is in fact no Irish (either “old” or Old) word cuil meaning ‘knowledge’; what is a little surprising is that they’re only slightly off. The word is actually coll, with genitive cuill; it means ‘hazel,’ and hazel trees are associated with wisdom in Celtic myth, so Bob’s your uncle. There’s a discussion over at Language Log, which led me to the Wikipedia talk page, where there is a sad/funny debate over whether it’s “original research” (and thus forbidden) to look words up in the dictionary.

By the way, when I looked up the word in my battered copy of Thurneysen’s Grammar of Old Irish, I found my shocked marginal annotation in the index pointing out that the indexer had lumped together coll ‘violation’ and coll ‘hazelwood.’ And that was back in 1946, when they were supposed to get things right!


  1. The search engine used to be called Cuill. They changed it to Cuil for no clear reason, perhaps because it was easier to type. So their etymology could perhaps be considered marginally correct if you can forgive the spelling difference and their not mentioning that it’s the genitive, … which given Google’s decision not to call itself Googol, I think is acceptable.

  2. michael farris says

    I hadn’t realized it’s to be pronounced ‘cool’, I had mentally pronounced it “quill”.

  3. I think the current wording is actually pretty good: “The company says its name is Irish (Gaelic) for knowledge and hazel.[8] Independent modern dictionary sources list the Irish word cuil as meaning fly or insect,[9] while the actual Irish word for hazel is coll.”
    Wikipedia really can’t deal with “I’m an expert and it’s obvious to me that …” edits, because of Becker’s Law (yeah, that Becker): for every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert on the other side of the question. If you’re an expert, publish your conclusions in a reliable secondary source, and then Wikipedia (by nature a tertiary source) can incorporate them.
    Dr. Johnson put the central issue pretty well, as you’d expect:
    To deliberate whenever I doubted, to enquire whenever I was ignorant, would have protracted the undertaking without end, and, perhaps, without much improvement; for I did not find by my first experiments, that what I had not of my own was easily to be obtained: I saw that one enquiry only gave occasion to another, that book referred to book, that to search was not always to find, and to find was not always to be informed; and that thus to persue perfection, was, like the first inhabitants of Arcadia, to chace the sun, which, when they had reached the hill where he seemed to rest, was still beheld at the same distance from them.

  4. Dr. Johnson was, as always, eloquent, but that quote can be an eloquent cover for not bothering to check one’s facts, which I fear is a more common sin than excessive research.

  5. björnkram says

    It’s a terrible name regardless of meaning or etymology.

  6. John Emerson says

    And that was back in 1946, when they were supposed to get things right!
    As Flann O’Brien made ever so clear.

  7. What Becker?

    Tá cuil aige liom

    See – that just makes me think “Ta cul!”, though of course it’s properly “Ton cul!”.
    Still unfortunate, but I guess the boycot of all things French means that not all that many USAnians will notice or care.

  8. Crown, Arthur says

    hazel trees are associated with wisdom in Celtic myth
    Did you know there are no hazel trees in Norway, only hazel bushes? Something to do with the weather or latitude. And the name hazel tree sounds apparently to a Norwegian ear as something like gooseberry tree or daffodil tree would to ours. On the other hand, in certain dialects they refer to the giant Norwegian spruce trees as “bushes”. I have no sources, refs or citations to give you for this information, you’ll just have to take my word for it. Or not.

  9. John Emerson says

    In Minnesota we have hazel bushes but not trees, and maybe in Canada.

  10. I always take your word for things, Crown, Arthur. It’s your nemesis Arthur Crown on whom I turn a skeptical eye.

  11. björnkram says

    John, maybe that’s why the Norwegians settled here!
    (Or maybe they actually brought them.)

  12. Arfur "50 øre" Crown says

    Do they call stands of enormous trees “bushes”, in Minnesota? If they start that nonsense, it means the trolls are coming.

  13. whether it’s “original research” (and thus forbidden) to look words up in the dictionary
    I agree with John Cowan. The issue is not about merely looking up words, but about doing this to create novel arguments debunking Cuil’s claimed etymology. Within Wikipedia’s stated constraints – only to include statements previously published in sources deemed reliable (i.e. not blogs and similar forums) – this definitely counts as forbidden “original research”.

  14. John Emerson says

    Krone, Minnesota’s enormous trees were almost all cut down by 1900. We do still have some medium-sized trees, which we do not call “bushes”. However, if you choose to call them bushes, we will be relatively polite.

  15. Arthur Crown says

    Don’t listen to him, Language, he’s no more trustworthy than me.

  16. the indexer had lumped together coll ‘violation’ and coll ‘hazelwood
    Given that Cuil’s magazine look is obtained through pilfering images from sites in order to decorate entries for other sites (copyright violation) perhaps the choice of the name was intentional ?

  17. This is the cuila and luck on irish !
    This is the cuila and luck on irish !
    This is the cuila and luck on irish !

  18. Actually, there are two words for knowledge in gaelic: eolas and fios. As both the and names have been registered since around 1994, I’m guessing that they thought they could spin a fish story to allow them to have a ‘cool’ name with a ‘cool’ story behind it. It was a lame attempt that’s particularly embarrassing to them when you consider what business they’re in. It’s ironic that the eolas domains are owned by Eolas Technologies, the company that has been in the news so much for successfully enforcing their browser patent against Microsoft a few years back. You’d think that a company that says they’re in the web knowledge business might have at least done a web search to find out that as well-known a company as Eolas owns one of the two names that really mean knowledge in Irish. I, by the way, own the other.

  19. Thanks for the back story — that’s pretty funny!

  20. “Cuil is the helpless victim of outlandish Silicon Valley social norms that force net startups into wasting their venture capital on strawberries and muffins while giving employees free rein to work as little as they like.”

  21. Yes, it’s a terrible name, but so is Google the first time you hear it. It makes you think of something gooey.
    But after a while, every brand becomes just another word and most people no longer think about its phonetical structure or etymology.
    This reminds me of a Seinfeld episode in which George was talking about how nice the word “manure” sounds, despite its meaning.

  22. Oh, sure, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be successful enough to make its name familiar.

  23. The following letter appeared in the Financial Times today:
    Apparent lapse in Gaelic knowledge
    Published: August 2 2008 03:00
    From Dr Kathryn Rodriguez.
    Sir, “Cuil is Gaelic for knowledge, apparently” (“Cuil v Google”, Lex July 29). Don’t believe everything you read in press releases. Verizon has a better claim here; the Irish word for knowledge is fios but pronounced differently from the FiOS fibre optics network. In both old and modern Irish cúil means “corner” or is the genitive form of cúl, a word meaning “back”.
    Kathryn Rodriguez,
    Princeton, NJ 08542, US
    PS:Her area of expertise appears to be conservation genetics, but that’s no reason she couldn’t know Gaelic.

  24. Oh, sure, but she’s making the mistake of taking the spelling seriously. Irish words spelled “cuil” and “cul” are pretty much irrelevant.

  25. John Cowan says

    Eleven Years Down the Road Dept.: This Becker, coiner of the word Unicode, co-inventor of Unicode itself, and coiner of Becker’s Law as quoted above.

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