News of Google Book’s new Ngram Viewer, which allows one to make a graph of the printed usage of any word over time, has been making the rounds on the internet for the last couple days. The advanced technology that makes this massive database possible has even spawned an upcoming article in the journal Science which announces a new discipline: culturomics.
After playing around with the website for a few hours, I have to say: this is pretty amazing. The ability to quantify things that had once been subjective ‘hunches’ on the part of scholars (“did publications about witches decline during the Enlightenment?”) is nothing short of revolutionary. Of course, this must come with the caveat that the Google Books database, large as it is, still amounts to only a small fraction of all printed materials (perhaps 4%), and there may well be significant errors in the dating of books and Google’s text-recognition tools.
In short, I’m not yet prepared to use this stuff for my academic work, but I do think it has amazing promise, and graphing the histories of different words can be enormous fun to boot. Some examples:
Note the spike in references to the devil during the rise of the Puritans in the 1610-30 period! And the great decline circa 1740, advent of the so-called ‘Age of Reason.’
Here I was trying to get a glimpse into the shift in discourses about the supernatural in printed English over the course of the long eighteenth century. Capitalized ‘Witch’ declines very sharply around 1710 — a counterpoint with the more vague ‘prodigies’ and ‘apparitions,’ which rise steadily throughout the period. Seems to accord nicely with the view that the supernatural became less easily explainable in this period.
I might post more in the next few days. Also: I invite readers to post their own in the comments section!