Governments around the world are doing everything they can to rename swine flu. They will not succeed and will end up misinforming the public.
"Government officials in Thailand, one of the world's largest meat exporters, have started referring to the disease as 'Mexican flu', according to an article in the New York Times. "An Israeli deputy health minister -- an ultra-Orthodox Jew -- said his country would do the same, to keep Jews from having to say the word 'swine'."
The World Organization for Animal Health, which handles veterinary issues around the world, wants it to be called the "North American influenza". The US secretary for Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, along with President Obama, have gone out of their way to call it by its scientific name, the "H1N1 virus."
"I would suggest that you call it 'novel flu virus' just to avoid the misunderstandings with the animal diseases because it costs a lot to the industry," said EU Commission spokeswoman Nina Papadoulaki. The World Health Organisation stated that from April 30, it would stop naming it "swine flu" and start naming it "influenza A(H1N1)".
So is it wrong of the public to use the phrase "swine flu"? Not according to Debora MacKenzie writing for the New Scientist. "It is clear that the virus came from pigs," she states. "Scientists have repeatedly warned that these viruses, especially the ones with the same surface proteins as the flu that is spreading from Mexico, posed a real risk of making a species jump and becoming a human pandemic."
It's early days yet, but all the signs are that search for the phrase "swine flu" has exploded on the Web. Like the virus itself, it has gone native, gone viral, escaped into the Web and become the way people search.
Who controls language? Can the European Union decide to rename something, and what are the implications of that? Here's one: European citizens who search for "swine flu" will be much less likely to find information from European Union websites.
Search has become a parallel human universe. How we search says a lot about what matters to us. "Google's search data may have been able to provide an early warning of the swine flu outbreak," Alexis Madrigal writes for Wired.
Madrigal goes on to make a very important point: "The early signals of disease are hidden in plain sight, and it takes humans recognizing that something is happening before the computers can be asked to find it." The key point to understand here is that if you want to tap the full potential of search you must add human management: analysis, trend spotting, connecting the dots.
Search is the greatest laboratory of human behavior that has ever existed. When words such as "swine flu" go wild on the Web, you must use those words because otherwise you will not be found. If you are not found then you are not useful. Before you have any chance of shifting the debate, you must first become part of it. Using the wrong words is like ships passing in the night: you are going one way and your customer is going another.