Google Helps Search the Evolution of Words

Google Books' Ngram viewer can track the use of words in English language books published between 1500 and 2000.
Google Books' Ngram viewer can track the use of words in English language books published between 1500 and 2000.

This past week Google offered the final word on words . . . billions and billions of them. Here's John Blackstone:

For centuries people have been searching for knowledge in books, but never before in the way Google has now made possible.

The search giant has digitally copied 5.2 million books published since 1500.

From those, they have built a database of 500 billion words . . . and made it available for all to search.

Google Books Ngram Viewer

Linguist Geoff Nunberg was immediately captivated.

"I can watch words like 'information overload' or 'information explosion,' 'information anxiety' as they grow over the course of the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s," he said.

A search on this new Google feature can provide instant insight into language, culture and trends.

Here's how it works: Put in a word like "teenager" and discover that the term was almost unused until the 1950s.

Put in two words - "men" and "women" - and discover that while men dominated for centuries, they have been in sharp decline since the 1940s, while women have come on strong.

Put in "saving" and "spending" and discover that in literature, as in life, "spending" shot up from the 1980s while "saving" went nowhere.

Nunberg can track when people started talking about "arugula," and when they stopped talking about "pork & beans."

Pork and beans may be down, but concerns about weight are up.

"Overweight" and "weight loss" were barely mentioned until 1900 - and have been rising steadily since.

It's another technology that can eat up plenty of time, discovering for example that "dogs" have been way ahead of "cats" since the 1740s.

It may not be news that "groovy" peaked in 1972, but guess what: It's been making a steady comeback for more than a decade.

"Waste, fraud and corruption" - Now that sounds like something we've been hearing a lot of in the last year or two. Nunberg says you can find it going back to 1880.

History is reflected in "war" and "peace" . . . "war" has always been on top, getting understandably big bumps during the two World Wars.

Mentions of "nuclear war" hit a high in the mid 1980s. What concerns us now is "terrorism," rising sharply since the mid-'90s.

But for all the information that Google is processing, linguist Nunberg reminds us that it all begins on the printed page.

"This is a really great technology," he said, indicating the Codex. "It's lasted about 1,500 years, and it'll be around another 1,500 years."

If you doubt the staying power of books, try this: Put the words "read books" and "use computers" into Google's new database, and you'll find that books come out well ahead.