I’ve just discovered an online time suck that is not only addictive to the language lover, but a source of writerly ideas. It’s the Google N-gram Viewer.
N-grams are drawn from a text or speech corpus that shows how the frequency of a word or phrase changes over time.
The corpus for the Google N-gram Viewer is a database of more than five million digitized books published between 1500 and 2008.
The GNV holds an intrinsic interest for me because I write about language, but it is also of value to me as a writer of historical fiction. It’s a means of catching anachronistic vocabulary in a story set in the past.
Another use of the GNV database–also of value to writers- is to get a notion of changes in cultural values as reflected in published materials.
In her article about the negative consequence of the modern worship of individualism, Emily Esfahani Smith uses the GNV to plot the decline of words and phrases associated with community, religious attitudes and responsibility to others. She observes that in the 1920s, words like give and benevolence began to decline, while words like get and acquisition began to climb.
I did a search of my own on some words and phrases. The dreary vulgarities that appear so much on Facebook began to soar from the 1960s to the present. The phrase “do your duty” began a precipitous plunge in 1920. Think, The Great Gatsby.
The Smith article refers to the theories of sociologist Emile Durkheim. He found a link between the cult of individualism and the social alienation that leads to unhappiness and suicide. According to Durkheim, cutting oneself off from traditional restraints and norms of behavior in quest of individual freedom results in depression and social decay. Ironically, the quest for self-empowerment leads to a sense of powerlessness.
Are these ideas reflected in the GNV? They seem to be. The word empowerment flies straight up on the chart from 1980 to the present. The word powerlessness shows a pretty straight climb from 1960. The phrase, “I do not like anyone” climbs steeply from 1980. The phrase “not worth living” gathers speed in 1960.
In addition to words and phrases, you can enter proper names and book titles, but entries containing more than five words will not work. Contractions won’t work either.
Note: The word engram is a term used in neuropsychology. Engram: a memory-trace; a permanent and heritable physical change in the nerve tissue of the brain, posited to account for the existence of memory.