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Playing with Ngrams

Posted: December 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: digital humanities | Tags: , | No Comments »

Today Google opened up the Ngram Viewer, a word search visualizer that queries the full text of 5.2 million books published from 1500 to 2008.  Ever wonder what has been trending over the last 500 years?

  • The more disperse, abstract “space” has been slowly gaining on the concreteness of “place” in a long arc from 1860 to the present.
  • The Enlightenment knew how to get things done until 1865, when for the first time since the 17th century, more things were “broken” than “fixed.”
  • The “gadget” has a far wider cultural significance than the “gizmo” or the “widget,” until the latter term starts getting taken up by software communities in the late 1980s.
  • Mars has always been the most popular planet, with spikes around the canal controversy of the 1910s, and the Mariner orbiter images in the 1970s.  I wonder why the spike in Venus around 1900?
  • In 1880, 1 out of every 100,000 words was “vagina.”  That is a lot.  It’s far more than most of the words surveyed here, and “penis” has never been that popular.
  • Changing forms of staying connected off the grid, with “wireless,” “portable,” and “mobile.” Interesting to see how “wireless,” once the generic name for broadcasting telegraphic signals over the airwaves–i.e. wireless telegraphy–is resurrected with mobile media.
  • The evolution of media.  Out of the big three mass media (radio, film, television), radio is the only one that shows a clear decline.  We have to get a bit more fine-grained to look at the subgenres, storage formats, and communications networks such as photograph, phonograph, telegraph, magazine, wireless, and internet.

More on Google Ngrams and the Culturomics team behind the project in the Scientific American and New York Times.

And for some more unbelievably smart Ngrams, check out:

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