There have been a spate of interesting research studies using the power and scope of the 5.2-million-strong Google Books archive to track the way we use language. A recent paper published in the Journal of Positive Psychology from identical twin researchers Pelin and Selin Kesebir of, respectively, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and London Business School, analyzes the appearance and frequency of words "related to moral excellence and virtue" in American books from 1901 to 2000. If the books are to be believed, we may be in a moral decline.
The Kesebirs undertook two studies for the paper. In the first, they looked at 10 words denoting the general moral worth of a person: character, conscience, decency, dignity, ethics, morality, rectitude, righteousness, uprightness, and virtue. In the second, they looked at 50 "virtue words," like "honesty, patience, honor, kindness, sincerity, courage, generosity, mercy, wisdom, humility," and so on. Obtaining word frequency data from Google Ngram Viewer, the Kesebirs found in both studies overwhelming declines in the use of the selected words. In the first study, "the frequency of 8 words (character, conscience, decency, dignity, rectitude, righteousness, uprightness, virtue) showed a significant negative correlation with time," they write in their paper. Words related to care and concern for others declined the most. "Of the ten words, six had already reached their peak frequency by 1904 and seven had their nadir after 1980," they explain.