Reader Theories on a Language Mystery

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I recently shared with our readers a puzzling discovery I’d made: When tracking the published instances of the term “mass shooting” over time, there’s a huge spike in the 1940s, according to Google’s language tracker, Ngram.

Why is that? Several of you came up with smart theories.

Nicholas Morley wrote:

It’s more than likely due to the sudden spate of coverage of the machinery of the Holocaust following the invasion of Germany by the Allies. It wasn’t until that year that the press began to explicitly cover the killings as coordinated, and only until then did the world became aware of their scope. Many camp guards, with the Allies pressing at their gates, simply rounded up the rest of the prisoners and shot them and fled, leaving the corpses for the advancing armies to discover. Mass shootings as a last resort.

Michael Umbricht compared the Google chart with instances in major newspapers, like The New York Times:

The number of hits for this phrase is incredibly low. Compare “mass shooting” to “mass murder” in Ngram. Then compare those Ngram results to the New York Times Chronicle.

Google ngram only covers until about 2008, but “mass shooting” doesn't spike in NYT coverage until after 2010. A search of historic newspapers in ProQuest gives very similar results with a jump in usage after 2007. The low number of hits before 2008 seems to throw the Ngram result count off and the 1945 peak is clearly spurious.

And Ben Paul took the analysis even farther, by exploring the rise of the word “mass” as an adjective:

I was interested by the question you posed in your note about the term “mass shooting,” so I did some more Google ngram-ing and word research to try to get to the bottom of it. The first thing I noticed was that World War II seems to be the time when the word “mass” starts being used to describe war, death, and violence. “Mass execution” spikes into usage during the war, and reaches a rate more than triple that of “mass shooting”—which, from the very limited Google Books samples, seems to be used to describe the same thing. The mass shootings of the 1940s are of prisoners and hostages, cases where a mass shooting is an action taken by a military or government group toward people already in their control.

Other “mass” atrocities begin to be described this way at the same time, with some (mass graves, mass killing, mass murder) spiking in the early 40s but at rates much lower than today's, and others (mass torture, mass warfare) seeing the same World War II spikes but never reaching the same usage rate afterwards. “Mass attacks,” interestingly, is the only example I found that had entered usage with a significant spike around World War I.

This made me curious about how “mass” has been used as an adjective, which it turns out is a fairly recent usage of the word. In fact, the use of "mass" for war actions seems to only follow a more general trend of “mass” language that begins in the early 20th century and spikes dramatically toward the end of World War II. Examples include “mass production” and “mass industry,” which peak in the ‘40s, and more modern-sounding terms like “mass market” and “mass media,” which are coined around the same time but trend consistently toward much higher levels at the end of the century.

With regards to today’s usage of “mass shooting,” the expected rise in the ‘90s seems to reflect a shift from the impersonal military violence of the World Wars to more individual, civilian crimes. An interesting parallel seems to be usage of “the shooter,” which spikes drastically from 1990 to today, roughly the same time that the new meaning of “mass shooting” is becoming popular. It is only with these individual crimes that the identity of the shooter becomes as important as the fact that multiple people were shot.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to think this through with me.