Earlier this week Google launched a powerful tool for visualizing cultural trends. The modestly-named Books Ngram Viewer allows you to search the frequency of any word in the 5.2-million strong Google Books database, reaching back to 1800. Earlier this week Read Write Web published a post of 10 fascinating word graphs created using the application. Here are three more:
War, Peace, Democracy
The first graph shows the frequency of the words “war,” “peace,” and “democracy” since 1800. Not surprisingly, the biggest peaks for war occur during World War I and World War II. Each Everest of writing on war is accompanied by a smaller hillock of writing on peace, slightly larger during WWI than WWII. What is interesting here is how writing about democracy tracks writing about war and peace during these great conflicts, with the greater frequency occurring during World War II. Why would this be? My guess is these books fall into the “why we fight” category, reinforcing the cultural values of the English-speaking countries in an effort to motivate the fight against fascism and communism, respectively.
Gay, Queer, Homosexual
The database also reveals cultural trends, including changes in perception of LGBT people. In the beginning of the twentieth century, queer slowly grew as a derogatory term The term gay also began to be applied to people who were not in committed heterosexual relationships, including promiscuous straight women. These terms decreased in use in the 1940’s and 50’s as the term homosexual gained prominence. This medicalization of LGBT identity was strengthened by the publication of the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1952 by the National Institute of Mental Health, in which homosexuality was included as a disorder. This trend continued into the early 1980’s, when the gay rights movements began to emerge and gained momentum at the end of that decade due in large part to the pressing health crisis of AIDS. Since then, the term gay has sky-rocketed in usage, while the usage of the term homosexual has tailed off, in relative terms. The term queer has also, to a lesser extent, been re-claimed.
The final graph I want to show is simply that of the precipitous decline of instances of the word God in English language books, which one can take as a proxy for the decline in religiosity. Far from being a recent occurrence, by this measure religion has been on the decline in the English-speaking world since the mid-nineteenth century, decreasing throughout the Industrial Revolution and reaching its current level around 1920. Even the recent periods of social conservatism in the 1950’s and social liberalism in the 1960’s are mere hiccups in the general decline of religion in this part of the world. We should be aware, at least in the US, that while religious conservatism may seem to be gaining prominence, it is a trend within a basically secular society.
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