Britain's Stiff Upper Lip Is Real—at Least in Literature

English-language books have become less emotional over time, but 'fear' words are on the rise.
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"It is a truth universally acknowledged that when one part of your life starts going okay, another falls spectacularly to pieces."

Bridget Jones might have been grousing melodramatically about her love life, but according to a new study, she and other emotive characters might be a minority in modern British literature.

To find out how the language in our novels has changed over time, researchers from universities in the U.K. and Sweden analyzed the English Google Books database, going back to 1900, for words that carried the feelings of "Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy, Sadness, and Surprise."

Here are just a few of their findings, from a paper in the journal PLOS published today:

  • Britain's literature has grown less emotional since the 1960s, but American literature has become more so. Overall, English-language literature has used far fewer emotionally-charged words over time, but American writers have bucked the trend: They've ramped up their use of "mood words" in the past few decades as Brits have grown more stoic.

Overall, the only emotion that's become more prevalent over time is "fear," which has occurred in books much more frequently since the 1970s. Maybe we can thank Stephen King for that.

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And here's a chart of the difference in frequency of "mood words" between American and British literature by decade:


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The authors note that the increase in American emoting coincides with a rise in "anti-social and narcissistic" sentiments in U.S. pop music lyrics between 1980 and 2007, as evidenced by words such as "I, me, and mine" and a decrease in words indicating social interactions, like "talk" or "child." So it seems that even though we've gotten more anti-social, we're increasingly keen to express ourselves.

  • World War II generated a lot of "sad" literature, while the 1920s and 1960s were "happy." By assigning words scores based on their mood, the researchers found that sentiments in books fit with historical events. Apparently, the roaring 20s actually roared. 

Here's a look at the graph of so-called "z-scores" for mood over time, where you can see the clear happiness humps in the 20s, 60s, and, it seems, after the new millenium:

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Of course, this is all hedged with a very big caveat: Word usage in literature may not actually reflect the way society behaves, so we can't necessarily say that a "happy" period in literature was a "happy" period for people at the time. As an example, the researchers note that the socially-conservative mores of Elizabethan England led to an increased demand for writing ''obsessed with romance and sex" -- which would make for quite a scintillating follow-up study.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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