Ngrams

You’ve got to check out the Google Ngram Viewer.  It allows you to tabulate, in the form of a graph, the number of times a word or phrase is mentioned in the vast number of titles in Google Books, from 1500-2000.   Those periods of time are statistically evened out, so that the far greater number of titles available in the last few decades does not overwhelm the relatively fewer number of titles in earlier centuries.

This allows users to explore trends in the history of ideas, language, and culture.  For example, go to the linked site and type in “Christ.” (Note the decline.)  “Boredom.”  (Was no one bored until the modern era?)  Do a comparison by typing in two terms:  Try “reason” and “culture.”  (Notice how “culture” hardly existed as a concept until a few decades ago, but now it has passed “reason,” which had its heyday just after the Enlightenment, as we would expect.  This might make us wonder how long “culture” will last.)

At the site read “About Google Books NGram Viewer” to see what all else it will do.  (It can be narrowed down in some very useful ways.)

Play around with it and post your discoveries here.

HT:  tODD

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Tom Hering

    This is tricky. Take the example of “boredom.” The result in the Ngram Viewer does seem to reveal that boredom is something unique to modern times. But try “tedium” or “world weariness” from 1500 to 2000 and the results are … different.

    Or, try the word “aesthetic” from 1500 to 2000. Was the world unconcerned with beauty before 1850? Does the steep rise in the use of the word after 1850 tell us about a change in the world – or does it only tell us something (what exactly?) about the authors of books after 1850?

    I’m guessing the Viewer doesn’t tell us about anything more than rises and falls in the use – by authors of books – of a particular word or phrase. You get a more striking example of what I mean when you compare “depression” and “melancholy” from 1800 to 2000.

  • Tom Hering

    This is tricky. Take the example of “boredom.” The result in the Ngram Viewer does seem to reveal that boredom is something unique to modern times. But try “tedium” or “world weariness” from 1500 to 2000 and the results are … different.

    Or, try the word “aesthetic” from 1500 to 2000. Was the world unconcerned with beauty before 1850? Does the steep rise in the use of the word after 1850 tell us about a change in the world – or does it only tell us something (what exactly?) about the authors of books after 1850?

    I’m guessing the Viewer doesn’t tell us about anything more than rises and falls in the use – by authors of books – of a particular word or phrase. You get a more striking example of what I mean when you compare “depression” and “melancholy” from 1800 to 2000.

  • helen

    That is funny!
    Who would have thought that Viking was more used than Scandinavian… in the last decade only!?
    But comparing “Danes” and “Norwegians” was better yet. 8-^)
    No doubt papers will be written on the basis of it,
    but it will also go around as the latest on line amusement like wordle.com

  • helen

    That is funny!
    Who would have thought that Viking was more used than Scandinavian… in the last decade only!?
    But comparing “Danes” and “Norwegians” was better yet. 8-^)
    No doubt papers will be written on the basis of it,
    but it will also go around as the latest on line amusement like wordle.com

  • Dennis Voss

    I typed in “spirituality.” In the last few years, it goes exponential. Just the opposite of Christ. Not very surprising, I guess, but unfortunate.

  • Dennis Voss

    I typed in “spirituality.” In the last few years, it goes exponential. Just the opposite of Christ. Not very surprising, I guess, but unfortunate.

  • Booklover

    Try the contrast between “self” and “Christ.” Or between “me” and “love.”

  • Booklover

    Try the contrast between “self” and “Christ.” Or between “me” and “love.”

  • http://ajwsmith.wordpress.com Andrew

    Try “relevant” and “war” (the latter spikes during WWI and WWII).

  • http://ajwsmith.wordpress.com Andrew

    Try “relevant” and “war” (the latter spikes during WWI and WWII).

  • Ted Johnston

    Try modesty.

  • Ted Johnston

    Try modesty.

  • Cincinnatus

    Tom@1: “Tedium” connotes something much, much different from “boredom,” which, in fact, is (on a broad, social level) a peculiarly modern phenomenon.

  • Cincinnatus

    Tom@1: “Tedium” connotes something much, much different from “boredom,” which, in fact, is (on a broad, social level) a peculiarly modern phenomenon.

  • Tom Hering

    Cincinnatus, how dare you imply – and the implication is obvious – that most of our modern military personnel are bored. Don’t you ever stop?

  • Tom Hering

    Cincinnatus, how dare you imply – and the implication is obvious – that most of our modern military personnel are bored. Don’t you ever stop?

  • SAL

    In America there has been a precipitous decline in “Righteous”, “Grace”, “Atone” and “Undeserving”.

    American language patterns certainly have changed.

  • SAL

    In America there has been a precipitous decline in “Righteous”, “Grace”, “Atone” and “Undeserving”.

    American language patterns certainly have changed.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Some of the examples I found interesting:

    Sin since 1800. Definitely not so much talk about it anymore.

    Law vs. Gospel. I capitalized them in the hopes of avoiding generic discussions of legal situations, as the search is case-sensitive. What does it mean that we’ve been talking a lot more about “Law” than “Gospel” since 1860? Can we blame it all on the 14th Amendment?

    Mentions of Christmas since 1800. Note the steep decline around 1960, picking up only in recent years. Were the Culture Warriors right?

    A comparison of some Protestant groups. Most of them had a great peak around the middle of the 19th Century, with considerable dwindling since then (and only mentions of “Baptist” picking up at all since 1960). But Lutherans keep chugging along, neither waxing nor waning.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Some of the examples I found interesting:

    Sin since 1800. Definitely not so much talk about it anymore.

    Law vs. Gospel. I capitalized them in the hopes of avoiding generic discussions of legal situations, as the search is case-sensitive. What does it mean that we’ve been talking a lot more about “Law” than “Gospel” since 1860? Can we blame it all on the 14th Amendment?

    Mentions of Christmas since 1800. Note the steep decline around 1960, picking up only in recent years. Were the Culture Warriors right?

    A comparison of some Protestant groups. Most of them had a great peak around the middle of the 19th Century, with considerable dwindling since then (and only mentions of “Baptist” picking up at all since 1960). But Lutherans keep chugging along, neither waxing nor waning.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Tom (@1), any meaningful word searches need to take into consideration the dates words were coined or became popular.

    Certainly, there’s a huge surge in “boredom” uses at the beginning of the 20th century, but then, the first known use of “boredom”, according to Merriam-Webster was in 1852. So that certainly is one part of the explanation. You also asked, “Was the world unconcerned with beauty before 1850?” But the first known use of “aesthetic” was in 1798.

    I guess my point being, you have to search for words that were in common use over the period you’re graphing.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Tom (@1), any meaningful word searches need to take into consideration the dates words were coined or became popular.

    Certainly, there’s a huge surge in “boredom” uses at the beginning of the 20th century, but then, the first known use of “boredom”, according to Merriam-Webster was in 1852. So that certainly is one part of the explanation. You also asked, “Was the world unconcerned with beauty before 1850?” But the first known use of “aesthetic” was in 1798.

    I guess my point being, you have to search for words that were in common use over the period you’re graphing.

  • Don

    Try Christianity.

  • Don

    Try Christianity.

  • Cincinnatus

    Tom@8: ha.

  • Cincinnatus

    Tom@8: ha.


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