Search engine giant Google said it has fixed the search results for the word “Jew” after an offensive definition of the word was appearing as the top result. For at least several hours on Tuesday morning and into the early afternoon, internet users who typed the word “Jew” into a Google search bar encountered a series of pejorative phrases as the engine’s leading result, which appeared above the dictionary definition describing a person affiliated with cultural and religious Judaism.
Prior to the fix, the leading result for the word “Jew” read: “Bargain with someone in a miserly or petty way.” The definition, which cited Oxford Languages as a source and characterized the term as a verb, included a small bolded banner marked “offensive” in capital letters. The search engine also presented the word in various “tenses,” including “jewed” and “jewing.”
Google updated the result after 1 p.m. ET, after many online pointed out the offensive error.
The offensive definition’s origin was listed as having been rooted in a 19th-century slur and “in reference to old stereotypes associating Jewish people with trading and moneylending.”
Google posted a statement confirming that the derogatory definition had been removed from its search engine results just before 1:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday, after it was flagged on Twitter by Amy Spitalnick, the executive director of the nonprofit organization Integrity First for America, who is also a vocal advocate against antisemitism.
“Our apologies. Google licenses definitions from third-party dictionary experts,” the company said in response to Spitalnick. “We only display offensive definitions by default if they are the main meaning of a term. As this is not the case here, we have blocked this & passed along feedback to the partner for further review.”
The definition that now populates following a Google search for “Jew” — again, citing information from the dictionary publisher Oxford Languages, which describes itself as Google’s English dictionary provider — reads: “A member of the people and cultural community whose traditional religion is Judaism and who trace their origins through the ancient Hebrew people of Israel to Abraham.”
The incident involving the offensive definition appearing comes amidacross the country. A spokesperson for the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks hateful and antisemitic incidents nationwide, told CBS News that “there is no excuse” for “an obviously antisemitic result” to be displayed first on Google.
“We are thankful that Google removed the offensive definition of the word Jew from its initial dictionary definition today after ADL and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported it,” the spokesperson said.
Google’s partnerships with “third-party dictionary experts” likely mean its search engines can directly access a partner company’s data or API — a software interface that facilitates communication and information exchanges between multiple computer programs — and offer quick results to internet users, said Dan Patterson, a former tech reporter at CBS News and CNET and the husband of Spitalnick.
“In some cases, they [Google] will pay a fee to have direct access to the company’s data, so they can serve it directly and faster,” Patterson explained. “It wasn’t a Google definition.”
Instead of asking users to click through links to find a given dictionary definition, Google indexes the API for an online dictionary service so that a filtered result can be conveniently displayed at the top of the page, “which is probably what they did here,” Patterson added. Pulling the offensive definition from a third-party’s API could be one reason why Google was seemingly able to remove it from its top search results without difficulty.
While Patterson acknowledged that the response from Google’s search liaison “makes sense,” he also pointed to lingering questions about what caused the error.
“How did this happen in the first place?” he said. “I don’t understand how you partner with a site that serves this type of information through a Google search. Shouldn’t there be some sort of filter, especially with a term like that, in a time of rising antisemitism? Why was nobody watching that search term?”