Thursday, August 1, 2013

A New Use for Google Books

The English language is a living thing: words become obsolete, others become popular, and new ones are created. We’re all aware of this process, but have you ever thought to yourself, “I don’t remember using or hearing that word very often, but now it seems to be everywhere overnight.”

Has the popularity of the word truly skyrocketed? Or were you just not paying attention before?

With Google’s Ngram Viewer, you might be able to figure it out. This nifty application—which really should come with a procrastination warning—uses texts from Google Books to graph word usage over time. You can trace a single word or phrase’s written frequency over time (hipsters got a lot of attention in the 1960s and were all but ignored in the 1980s) or you can compare several words (you’re unlikely to see either these days, but tell your friends that verily was always more popular than forsooth).

Lexicographers, linguists, grammarians, and people who simply like a good dictionary were all atwitter when the venerable Oxford English Dictionary announced its decision to add a new definition of tweet: “to  submit a post to the microblogging service known as Twitter.” (Ironically, microblog hasn't yet made the cut.) The Ngram data set only goes back to 2008, so we can’t see the jump that has almost certainly happened in the last five years and which prompted the OED to break its own rule about only adding a word after ten years of documented popular usage. Still, it was interesting to find out that tweet also experienced a heyday around 1810 but that apparently no one had much to say about birds in the 1850s.

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