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Consumer Reports

Google gamers' word pairings a creative addiction | (KRT) Are you a creative type with an Internet connection and a vocabulary that's Brobdingnagian?

If your stock of words includes little-used verbiage like that synonym for "big," and you can find an equally unlikely word to pair it with online - vasodilator, perhaps - "googlewhacking" might be just the game for you.

In this addictive Internet pastime, players plug two English words into the Internet search engine Google in hopes of finding a single Web page - just one Google search result. This is no mean feat: Google now indexes more than 3 billion Web sites.

No one knows how googlewhacking started, or when, exactly. Those not already aficionados might even ask why. But for people hooked by thinking up unlikely word duos and posting them online, the answer is as simple as, well, "ululating chowhounds."

"Googlewhacking is the Internet equivalent of the crossword puzzle and soap box, merged into one ever-changing site," said Jack "Naugahyde jodhpur" Polakoff, a former New York broadcast journalist who estimates he's posted hundreds of whacks in the past few months. "It's free, anonymous, open 24 hours a day."

Michigan computer programmer Gary Stock, who coined the term "googlewhack" in early 2001, said he heard about the game via a friend's e-mail. Word of mouth and a few media mentions sparked so much interest that the Web site Stock set up to record googlewhacks soon logged 4,000 hits weekly.

As the game has evolved from the simple thrill of finding a single Google result, players now search for meaning in their bizarre two-word combinations, which can occur anywhere in a single Web site. There are "Star Trek" whacks and Shakespearean whacks, raunchy whacks and political whacks. Any word used must already be included on the site to qualify.

At Stock's Web site (, a passionate, often highly political community gathers nightly to post its latest finds, accompanied by wry commentary and political satire. The site now logs 1,000 whacks each week, said Stock, whose first whack paired "trombone" and "easement."

The entries range from poignant ("unreassuring snuggles": worse than no snuggles at all) to blistering ("insolvent pachyderms": among all the negative fallout from the Enron scandal, what single thing does the Texas Republican Party fear most?).

"I saw it on CNN, had to try it, then became obsessed with it," said Karin, a 30-something Pennsylvania woman who frequently posts her whacks on Stock's Web site but didn't want to give her last name. "I love words and reading, so it was great for me. I've always thought I had a good vocabulary, but I've learned so many words this way. It makes you appreciate the English language even more."

David Guilfoyle, a Stanford University senior majoring in computer science, plays every day on the computer in his dorm room.

"It's very entertaining," Guilfoyle said. "It's one of those things you can spend five or 30 minutes on to kill time. You learn a lot of cool stuff, like there's a disease with 65 letters."

As the whacks trickle onto Stock's Web site, a kind of conversation not unlike that seen on many Internet discussion boards - but far more literate - slowly develops.

"You do sort of get to know these people," Karin said. "You look forward to seeing them on the site. We'll have themes, like Shakespearean insults or the elements."

Some words become so popular that Stock is forced to "jail" them for a time, forcing players to get more creative. Chthonic, a word meaning "of the underworld," seems to be a favorite. So are heptagon, a seven-sided geometric figure, and ziti, a type of pasta.

"It's kind of a test of your understanding of English usage," said Stanford University English and comparative literature lecturer Meg Worley, who whacks no longer because "it is a terrible time suck."

Executives at Palo Alto-based Google smile indulgently when asked about googlewhacking. They don't play it much themselves anymore, the game being so 15 months ago and all, but spokesman David Krane said the company still finds the phenomenon flattering.

"I'm pleasantly surprised to hear that there's a community of people still loyal to googlewhacking," Krane said.

There's an art to googlewhacking, of course. Preferred words are unusual but not to the point of incomprehensibility. Veteran googlewhackers will often use one word as a fulcrum, playing with it until that sought-after single Web site pops up. In a practice known as "hopscotching," they will use one of another player's words in a new whack as a tribute.

In the service of participatory journalism, this Mercury News reporter experimented with the medical term "vasodilator" for an embarrassingly long time before stumbling on a hit: "vasodilator bougainvillea," showing up on a site of botanical and anatomical information maintained by the British Library.

"There's just so much information out there," said Karin, who aims for oxymoronic whacks like "goldbricking workaholic." "To me, it's a fascinating commentary on what the Internet has become."

"Psychedelic starfruit," anyone?

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services