I’ve just finished reading Uncharted (2013), in which Erez Aiden & Jean-Baptiste Michel describe how they convinced Google to create the Ngram Viewer. This is a great tool that lets you analyze word frequency across millions of books, and a powerful set of data that you can play with for free–so try it out! (If you get confused, this guide will help.)
For instance, here’s a graph of how often cool professions are mentioned in English-language books over time, demonstrating, if nothing else, that experts get referred to with a toss-away label such as ‘the anthropologist’ far too often:
And also demonstrating that “fieldwork” is a much more recent concept than I thought (yes, screenshot below, as searching “fieldwork=>*_NOUN” for related terms wouldn’t embed properly):
But it’s not just English books. Over in the Russian language books, you can assess the relative frequency of steady favorites Lenin (green) and Marx (red), the jump in obligatory discussion of Stalin (orange) while alive, followed by suppression after he left, and finally, a sharp rise in talking about God (blue) after Soviet restrictions were lifted in the late 1980s:
Also in Russian, we can see mentions of tsarism go down (blue), while the (soviet) Union (red) goes up. Economic restructuring (green) and openness (navy) both have a jump in the late 1980s, while dissident writings (orange) remain mostly beneath the radar.
All the Single Ladies
Another quirky example is in synonyms for single ladies. Party like it’s 1899? I’m not sure why there’s a sudden jump in discussion of old maids in the 1890s.
A friend suggests that old maid is a card game, which would have been popular in the Victorian era. My intuition says this is a good explanation, but a search for other parlor and card games doesn’t show the same jump. Maybe it’s what people called their wives in old books? A nickname for the declining years of the 19th century? Still unresolved:
Then there are the librarians. Do they work with books, or computers? This chart suggests that the librarians are increasingly connected with computers, relative to their existing connection with books:
There’s also a clear shift from cataloging (of print materials) to metadata (for digital materials):
Literature and Fantasy
Try it yourself!
Interested in checking out your own theories on print culture? Play with history at https://books.google.com/ngrams!