Google’s Ngram Viewer

Recently we’ve discussed looking at books in a historical context. As we read in Underwood’s blog, just collecting data on word quantities is useless. There is no way to relate today’s understanding of certain concepts to historical understanding of the same concepts without meticulous research. So having said that, I’m going to make a brief examination on two different pairings of words, the analysis of which is surely to be arbitrary at best.

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The first set of words I’ll discuss are “face” and “hands” from books ranging from 1800 to 1900. Over that period of time the word “hands” has a minor increase but mostly stays level throughout. “Face” on the other hand, starts in 1800 well below where “hands” falls, appearing only half as much in that time. But the popularity of that word will come to increase in the century, eventually surpassing “hands” in quantity by the mid 1890’s. Unfortunately, I have no real way to interpret or understand why the word increases so much during that time, but it’s trajectory interests me nonetheless.

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The next set of words I looked at were “thin” and “fat”, also in the 1800-1900 range. I originally used the word “skinny” in lieu of “thin”, but it ran entirely along the bottom with the x-axis, suggesting that the word may not have even existed yet, or at least was a word rarely used by writers of the 19th century. The word “thin” is ultimately more popular than the word “fat” throughout this period. They follow a similar trajectory, starting off high and lulling into the 1810’s, then to rise back up through the end of the century. Perhaps this suggests a shift in attitudes of that time about body image and appearance, that those things lost importance to writers, however briefly. Of course there is likely a better explanation and the word selection also leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps instead of “fat” writers of the time preferred the word “obese”, “rotund”, or any other synonym used at that time. Not to mention the likely possibility that this data is skewed by inclusion of things like the fat on a cut of meat and not solely as a weight description.

There are some things of mild interest I can examine here, but without the proper historical context I’m lost in the woods. That doesn’t make it not worth doing of course, it just requires a larger amount of effort from scholars around the world to understand literary history.

Until next time, Kevin Finer.


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