Friday, January 7, 2011

A Gala of Google Ngrams (updated)

OK, so I have been working on a couple essays about modernism, but as usual I got distracted.  The Google ngrams  (here too) caught my attention this week so I had to play with them.  Here are some of the cultural periods I have been discussing based on word searches [1].  Remember, these charts reflect how popular certain words were during the selected time frame. Click on a chart to get a bigger image.

Update 01/08/11: I redid all the charts using the word eat as a base line.  Also, I added a few more charts so the gala is now more a gaggle.

In the 17th century “age of faith” people liked the words faith, love, and heart. Certainly, a passionate era.


The 17th century was a soulful era too.  The 18th was not.

Was the 18th century an “age of reason"? Apparently not. But they liked thoughtReason was popular before and after the 18th century.  I guess that spike in the very late 18th century has to do with somebody writing a book called "the age of reason".

The discussion of the Enlightenment started circa 1825. The study of romanticism began in the late 19th century and then died down. Neither seem that important compared to the basic idea of eating.

Modernity and post modern are both, well, modern and post modern. Our culture war seems so irrelevant.

 A close up of the culture war. Note the change in scale from the above chart.


Intuition continues to slowly build like the Old Master that it is.  Meanwhile the upstart rationality has shot its wad as the young genius that it was. Now we can focus on really understanding our world, intuitively and deeply.  Yes the Age of Intuition has really begun.

But, will intuition ever overcome our basic need of eating the way science has done?

 And people wonder why the religious folks are angry at science.  Science the usurper.

All fun aside, I remain skeptical about the Ngrams tool.  I used a similar technique for my essay on reflexive archaeology [2]; there I did word counts using Google Scholar for the word reflexive.  You must understand that words change meaning and nuance, and that when they change meanings their popularity within a culture can change significantly.  Reflexive was a special linguistic and mathematical term, then the psychologists used it, and then it became quite common among educated people.  That change happened in the 1950s-1960s when the meaning expanded to cover all types of self referential and collateral relations.

Therefore, use the Ngram tool wisely and don't take the charts at face value; dig behind the numbers to really see how words, ideas, and cultures change.  Charting a few words is the beginning of a study not the end.

1. I have used the period 1500-2008 as a base line.  The corpus is English (both Brits and American), and the smoothing is 3; non capitalized words. See here.
2.  "Toward a Still and Quiet Conscience: A Study in Reflexive Archaeology," North American Archaeologist, 2001, 27(2): 149-174.


  1. What about the word, uh..."science"? Probably spiked in frequency of usage about 1980. Been dropping off ever since. At least we know of one instance where its usage was dropped.

    BTW, I don't think there (necessarily) is a strict dichotomy between Rationality and Intuition. We don't understand cognition well enough at the level of the neuron to explicitly state there is always a distinct difference. For example, ideation within an individual could arise intuitively, metaphorically, whatever. But communicating such ideas effectively to others may require a more formal structure (rules of syntax/semantics in language; the logic of mathematics for scientific ideas). The fact that we can't write computer algorithms to model intuition suffers from the same shortcoming: programmers essentially "tell" the computer how to process information, how to "think". Theoretically, "Rationality" could be an artifact of communication in its various forms. Not that I believe that, per se. Just that cognition is more complicated than we think.

  2. I have been playing around with several words and charts, including science. I am skeptical about the use of this Ngram tool. The charts above all come out at different scales so some big changes look more important than they really might be. So, I may redo them using some common base word for standard scale.

    Cognition is more complicated than the words rational-intuitive. However, once put into the public sphere concepts take on a life of their own as cultural patterns. That was the gist of my Dionysus Apollo essay. Science has yet to understand how the meat based biochemistry-electrical process creates super-organic culture.

  3. "Nothing is more real than nothing" (famous quote from some Irish dude)

    Once some thing is, you have something to think about. And to talk about. After that, the thing - word, concept, idea or whatever - becomes more complicated, less defined than its originator intended, perhaps. As you say, it takes on a life of its own in the public sphere. To a degree, that life is confined to the new medium in which it exists: the means by which the thing is communicated. Necessarily, nuance, variation, bias etc are introduced and the original thing is no longer what it was. It's not nothing, but it's not the "real" thing someone started with.

    Here another quote (the source is well known):

    "In the beginning was the Word".

    We invented words and after that it was all downhill, a reality in constant flux. Of course, that's not really what I mean. Just the closest I can get to expressing what I think. And, whether something's "real" or not may not be as important as we all tend to think. Nothing may be the most real thing, but it ain't the most important thing. I really hope I've made myself clear on this (with apologies to Samuel Beckett).