90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Trending Terms, Digital Books & Historical Data Crunching

We look at what 500 years of word usage tells us about our culture. See the Google Books Ngram Viewer.

Google Books

Google Books

We are the species of language and words. The words we use come pretty close to defining us … the way we see the world. And those words change over time — dramatically.

Now, researchers are tapping a massive new database of words and phrases from 5 million books to see how our embrace and use of words has changed over centuries.

Google put it up. The new tool lets you map the path of any word through time. “Beseech”? It’s way past its prime. “God”? That word peaked in 1830. “Twitter”? It was huge in 1900, and coming back, changed.

We look at our history, and life, in words.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests:

Erez Lieberman Aiden, co-author of the article “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books,” which appeared in the most recent issue of the journal Science. He’s a fellow with the Harvard University Society of Fellows.

Geoffrey Nunberg, linguist at the University of California Berkeley School of Information.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Nick

    I HOPE THERE IS A SHOW ABOUT THE REPUBLICANS BLOCKING THE FUNDING FOR THOSE FIRST RESPONDERS AT 9/11 WHO ARE NOW SICK AND DYING FROM THE SITE.

    I can not believe that the news outlets are not carrying this. NPR is not carrying it either. You can find it on Al-Arabya !

    AND I ABSOLUTELY CAN NOT BELIEVE THAT THE DEMOCRATS HAVE NOT PICKED UP THIS BALL AND TOSSED – IT IS TOTALLY BEYOND ME ! ARE THEY TOTALLY ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL OR JUST SO LAZY THAT…..

  • Al Dorman

    (Boston, MA)
    YES, great topic – the NGRAM Viewer is a fantastic waste of time, a lot of fun. Any chance you could ask Mr. Nunberg about the basics of language? I’m interested how languages as diverse as Russian and Irish are all considered “Indo-European,” where that language came from, and what other trees there are. Thanks.

  • Mr. Trees, Davenport, Iowa

    I only spent a few minutes on the Ngram page but tried to figure out what word was used most often. It looks like “I” blows everything else away. How profound. Is “I” number 1 or am I missing something obvious. (For reference, “I” was used 5 times out of 61 words, or approximatelly 8.197% of the time, in this entry.)

  • Mr. Trees, Davenport, Iowa

    This reminds me of a macroscopic version of Google Trends; looking at communication in a much more historical perspective vs. Google Trends looking at searches since Google’s inception. Was this the thought process that created this program?

  • John

    I wonder if the “god” numbers will go up as a result of the recent surge in atheist books.

  • WordGirl

    Plug in the word Google for a real surprise … usage peaked in 1900.

    – Boston-area journalist

  • carol

    Look up the word “girls” and compare it with “women.” Interesting.

    From Downs, Illinois.

    I just saw Cynthia yesterday, Tom.

    Carol Hiebert

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    The internet has provoked neologisms, at least new spellings. Weld-rite can co-exist with weld-wright and weld-right. And for web searching you can have BayState as well as Bay State, and the former is easier to search online. In my job, creating court transcripts, I am beginning to seize the language and bend it to my needs — to the needs of the appeals courts and lawyers — by often creating hyphenated words in order to make it easy to search in word indexes — or in the transcript itself — for this or that. When in doubt, create one word out of two. The world will thank me. Good-bye books about hyphenation. Nowadays I do the deciding.

  • Laura Lomas

    Question:

    How much does the language of todays youth affect the vocabulary of today vs. the language of youth in the past??

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    Fabulous surely derives from the word fable. Think of chimeras. It is steeply warped by a California bent that makes it mean “fab.” As in the Fab Four, the Beatles.

  • David Minard

    Type in women’s liberation and sexual revolution. The first term flatlines, while the later does the expected spikes, starting in the sixties and dropping off somewhat in the past few years.

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    I expect the word gentleman in the 18th century signified a certain class (in England), but I suspect now people in order to achieve being called a gentleman have to appear in court as a defendant. The word “Sir” is also used mostly in court settings.
    Ladies might be the same. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury” is said thousands of times a day, but you have to be a juror to be addressed like that.

  • Amy

    I am wondering if while plotting the data for individual words, are other factors like, rise in publishing houses or number of total books being published etc are taken into account ? I would imagine that the data need to be normalized with these factors in mind otherwise all the enhancements we see in different times may not be quite real.

  • http://hdlibrarystorage.com Tom Schneiter -Madison, CT

    Some libraries, notably Harvard, declined to violate copyright law in order to participate in the Google Books project. Therefore, only books published pre-1923, and earlier for those published outside of the US, were scanned. This has to skew the validity of the data sets resulting from searches.

    Also, Robert Darnton did not “pull Harvard out of the project,” as alleged by your second guest. Harvard had completed its portion of the project.

  • John

    How ridiculous that a linguist has to resort to saying “the A word.” The airwaves shouldn’t be censored.

  • steve m

    There were far fewer publication a century ago. It would be nice to see the percent usage of words within the limited quantity of books back then, versus the percentage within the larger quantities published today.

    boston, ma

  • Leora

    I have been watching Leave it to Beaver and Wally uses certain words, for instance, “creep,” in a way we don’t see it today. In addition to shifts in meaning I wonder: Would this usage be reflected in written texts of the late 50s and early 60s or was it only used in the vernacular?
    (Leora in Lexington, MA)

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    There is a difference between words that editors approve for book publication versus what is said in the real world (I like to think the testimony and arguments in court are more real-world than published books).
    The internet is yet another sort of language, and it is infiltrating courts so I suppose it will infiltrate published books (if not “become” the books).

  • Anna

    About “woman”..Im 58years old. My mother would have been insulted if revered to as a woman. Woman was a more earthy reference to lower class females. “Lady” was a better sort of female( which wasnt used either).

  • Longfeather

    Oh, thank you! I listened to the Governor of Virginia this am and heard these buzz words, ‘getting down to business’ ‘handling” I can’t find my stickum in the midst of wrapping things. But, it would be wonderful if the new’s media would play backfrown music like they did in vaudeville when the buzzwords start flowing, and a cane came and pulled the codetalkers offstage, because we have real problems in Virginia and the gov is buzzing the codewords and misdirecting from his lack of attention to issues. Can we have some software we can put on our systems that zips these people off when the sequence of buzz words, and lack of ‘thoughtfulness’ starts buzzing, and then play a pleasant orchestral piece, until the voice disappears? I suggest some Kossack Music. Please help, kind sirs.

  • Jay in Buffalo

    Have they done anything about the word or a phrase containing the word “war”

    Maybe it is just me but the government has a number of wars going on in this society and I believe that the use of the term changes our values. It isn’t just world wars, the war in Iraq or Afghanistan but the war on drugs, the war on terrorism etc.. Some of these wars are changing our domestic life and culture. They change our values and allow the government to take actions that at one time might not have been acceptable for the vast majority of citizens.

  • Faith Justice

    When I put in pad thai, I was thinking it would not have shown up until the 1980′s but there’s an odd blip of it showing up in the 1880′s for a brief period of time. I would love to know why?

  • http://onanov.com Donald Baxter, Iowa City, IA

    How about those who, in agreement, use the word “correct.” when they should say either, yes or “I agree?”

  • Lily

    Lily from Baltimore, listening in NH.
    You’ve talked a lot about the girls/women/ladies trends. A relevant follow up search is ‘manners’ which follows a similar line as ‘lady.’ My guess is the parallel spikes of ‘lady’ and ‘manners’ has to do with the printing of hundreds of manuals on polite manners outlining correct decorum for a proper lady. Pretty cool.

  • http://twitter.com/conzatorium Connie Michener

    My favorites:

    rock,paper,scissors … disappointing.
    opinion, fact
    suggest, support, explain
    discover,invent
    empty, surprise
    describe, imagine
    pattern, method
    horse, automobile

    fixation of belief, paradigm change, chaos: Our understanding of the world seems to be at 10 pct.

    Peevishness, held at bay until 20th c., set to soar in 21st c. http://goo.gl/AdhJw (peeve)

    seven deadly sins http://goo.gl/SitYf

    increase in ‘I love you’

    When were secrets least talked about? http://goo.gl/4QjOQ

    Four centuries of joy and anger http://goo.gl/Cnd7F #ngrams Can we recover our former rapture?

    Very idea of genius ruined by Jefferson’s own idea of equality? http://goo.gl/RNbpt

    learning trounces doom, fairly smooth sailing in last century http://goo.gl/L1jDz

    failure on decline since 1980, but correction remains flat http://goo.gl/lhy4U

    thought remains strong and surging, action is on the decline, feelings on the upswing, while beliefs remain flat http://goo.gl/yQAeb

    despite it all, fire is still our number one technology. http://goo.gl/KGEEW

  • Brenda Davidson

    Does the database include just narrative text, but also footnotes and bibliographies? Does that make a difference in use of words? For example, the word ‘random’ – is the database picking up title pages and bibliographies that have the word random from Randon House the publisher in them?
    Thaks.

  • Janet

    listening in North Andover

    The spike in the use of Google in 1900 is the comic character Barney Google.

  • Bill Fowler

    from Nashville, subscriber to WPLN

    I am interested in knowing how, among teenagers and early 20 somethings, the term “gay” now not only means homosexual but also something along the lines of “unacceptable.” For example, “those pants look really gay.” This said by one who is not homophobic.

  • Robb from Va Beach, VA

    I would like to see a similar tool that pools contemporary data from different languages (maybe the last 20 or 50 years?). For instance, what are the most common words translated from the English word “fun” and what is the frequency of those words in Japanese? Arabic?

    It seems to me we could learn much from our contemporary cultures this way.

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    “Gone ballistic” I think got started under Bush the first. I think it became a cliche of sorts and then went into disfavor.

  • Edward in Milton, MA

    something weird here; they just mentioned “nucular”, a “word” that drives me nuts. If view just “nucular” I get spiky chart with peaks in 1860 and 1990, but if I view “nucular, nuclear” the nucular data is completely different.

  • Longfeather

    I think the prez using ‘ginned up’ is Chicago talk, like how ‘kit and kaboodle’ became ‘shi-&kaboodle’ and I remember PaPa and all the Chicago sayings and Kankakee where grandmere lived. Also remember saying of maternal FirstFeather, grandmother, when stirring a double boiler, all to do with cooking, and slowing down and having no unoccupied children underfoot. Little Longfeather always safely tucked under table occupied with green tinted pie dough scraps to warn me not to eat. Even with Bluetooth, do not Hurry, worry or Volunteer when stirring the custard (The sayings start rolling like an opera (Quebeque) or Novena’s (Pensacola FirstFeather.

  • WordGirl

    Okay Tom,

    I went ahead and did a little poking around myself, and it seems the 20th century usage of google refers to a breaking ball play in cricket. If you plug in both terms, you can track that usage with the spike shown when you just search “google.”

    http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=google%2C+cricket&year_start=1600&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

    I just couldn’t let that go, but I’m glad I figured it out… back to work.

    – Boston reporter

  • WordGirl

    Janet, just saw your comment and plugged in Barney Google, but that looks like the usage was more around 1950ish, and still didn’t reach the heights of the early 1900s. But probably another reason it didn’t drop off when cricket’s popularity dwindled.

    http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=Barney+Google&year_start=1600&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

    I just have to do two more peeves of mine.

    1- The typically extraneous words – “in order to.”

    2- “Myself,” which so often incorrectly gets used in place me or I. I assume it’s to avoid figuring out which is correct.

    Then it’s really back to work.

    - Boston reporter who might not make deadline now

  • Thrace

    Compare the words yes and no. Are we more optimistic?

  • http://www.onpointradio.org/about-on-point/john-wihbey John Wihbey

    Hey Janet, WordGirl and others – We just posted a little blog on the “google” usage debate you started. Our guest Erez weighs in:

    http://www.onpointradio.org/2010/12/words-google

    -John, producer

  • Ethan

    Compared the usage of “I” and “you” over last 200 years. Great parallel between the two with “I” occurring about twice as frequently as “you.” Not too surprising I suppose.

  • Kevin

    Type Virtue into NGram the graph has a very disappointing downward trend…

  • Ellen Dibble, Northampton, MA

    I think virtue used to mean strength (from its root, word history), and that this word began to be associated with the bigotry of the WASPs who sort of owned the word. They named their daughters Prudence, whence the word “prude.” And a daughter Virtue might get a similar nickname. A boy might be named Fortitude, with “strength”/virtue implied, a more fortress-type forte suggested.
    But if I want to use a word to mean what “virtue” used to mean 50 years ago, I would pick another word. Actually, I would skirt the naming of this idea. “Fairness” is sometimes offered as an inborn human sense of what is good. So that’s not a strength; it’s more like a sense, the ability to weigh justice.
    “Virtue” may have come to suggest conformity to particular judgments that seem more like prejudice than “fairness,” and so we don’t use that word if we can get around it. It suggests bigotry.

  • Bonni

    This is a fascinating tool and subject matter! I will be wasting many, many hours on the NGram site this Christmas season.

ONPOINT
TODAY
Aug 20, 2014
A man holds his hands up in the street after a standoff with police Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, during a protest for Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo. (AP)

A deep read on Ferguson, Missouri and what we’re seeing about race, class, hope and fear in America.

Aug 20, 2014
In this Oct. 21, 2013 file photo, a monarch butterfly lands on a confetti lantana plant in San Antonio. A half-century ago Monarch butterflies, tired, hungry and bursting to lay eggs, found plenty of nourishment flying across Texas. Native white-flowering balls of antelope milkweed covered grasslands, growing alongside nectar-filled wildflowers. But now, these orange-and-black winged butterflies find mostly buildings, manicured lawns and toxic, pesticide-filled plants. (AP)

This year’s monarch butterfly migration is the smallest ever recorded. We’ll ask why. It’s a big story. Plus: how climate change is creating new hybridized species.

RECENT
SHOWS
Aug 19, 2014
Lara Russo, left, Cally Guasti, center, and Reese Werkhoven sit on a couch in their apartment in New Paltz, N.Y. on Thursday, May 15, 2014.  While their roommate story of $40,800 found in a couch made the news, other, weirder stories of unusual roommates are far more common. (AP)

From college dorms and summer camps to RVs and retirement hotels, what it’s like to share a room. True stories of roommates.

 
Aug 19, 2014
Police wait to advance after tear gas was used to disperse a crowd Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014, during a protest for Michael Brown, who was killed by a police officer last Saturday in Ferguson, Mo. (AP)

“War zones” in America. Local police departments with military grade equipment – how much is too much, and what it would take to de-militarize America’s police force.

On Point Blog
On Point Blog
Your (Weird? Wonderful? Wacky?) Roommate Stories
Tuesday, Aug 19, 2014

We asked, and you delivered: some of the best roommate stories from across our many listener input channels.

More »
1 Comment
 
Our Week In The Web (August 15, 2014)
Friday, Aug 15, 2014

On Pinterest, Thomas the Tank Engine and surprising population trends from around the country. Also, words on why we respond to your words, tweets and Facebook posts.

More »
Comment
 
Nickel Creek Plays Three Songs LIVE For On Point
Wednesday, Aug 13, 2014

Nickel Creek shares three live (well, mostly) tracks from their interview with On Point Radio.

More »
Comment