This week, a new Google search tool made its debut: the Books Ngram Viewer, which draws on a database of nearly 5.2 million books published in six languages between 1500 and 2008. You can use the Ngram Viewer to search for words and phrases, and track the frequency with which they appear over a given amount of time. Erez Lieberman Aiden, a junior fellow at Harvard who co-authored a research paper about the database, has described the project's goal as "[giving] an 8-year-old the ability to browse cultural trends throughout history, as recorded in books." Bloggers are marveling over their sudden ability to comb centuries of the written word.
Here's a bit of what we've learned so far:
We're Quicker to Adopt Technology and Forget Celebrities The New York Times reports that "the researchers measured the endurance of fame, finding that written references to celebrities faded twice as quickly in the mid-20th century as they did in the early 19th." Meanwhile, "looking at inventions, they found technological advances took, on average, 66 years to be adopted by the larger culture in the early 1800s and only 27 years between 1880 and 1920."
We're a Planet of Godless Sushi-Eaters! The Wall Street Journal notes that researchers "could track changing tastes in food, noting the waning appetite for sausage, which peaks in the 1940s, and the advent of sushi, the mentions of which start to soar in the 1980s. They documented the decline of the word 'God' in the modern era, which falls sharply from its peak in the 1840s."
Pay Attention to What's Not There "The absence of words can be just as informative as their presence," writes Ed Yong at Discover. "Tiananmen Square became massively more common in English books following 1989, but the frequency of the equivalent characters in Chinese texts remained stable. The names of the Hollywood Ten--a group of alleged Communist sympathisers--were mentioned far less often in English texts after 1947. This repression was never clearer than in Nazi Germany ... None of this is surprising in a historical context, but in the future, the corpus could help to identify victims of censorship in a rapid way, for current or recent events."