It could be a failure of my imagination, but I’m having a very hard time seeing what would be useful about Google’s new Ngram Viewer. It’s being presented in the Times as some sort of breakthrough, and I suppose it is–it’s never been possible to do this before. But then it was never possible to ride around on a two-wheeled upright self propelled conveyance before either, and that didn’t turn out to be as earthshaking as proclaimed.
So I’m a historian–I go and enter the word “slavery,” and waddya know: they used it a lot in the 19th century, and it peaked in 1860. Intriguing! why would that be, I wonder?1 This would seem to be an instance of using elaborate methods to establish the already known.
It’s interesting to know that slavery peaks in 186o, makes a mild comeback, then declines till the 70s when it bumps up again. I’m guessing this is the effect of the TV show Roots. Which is another problem with the data–you don’t know the relative frequency of the word, because you don’t know how many books were published in each era, or what might have inspired sudden increased usage.
So let’s try word pairings: “slavery” and “freedom.” Wow, Freedom really experienced a bull market in the late 40s, and practically ran off the charts at the same time as the Roots boomlet, then it declined.
Yawn. The really interesting thing isn’t how often the word appears, it’s what it’s made to mean in the text–100o monkeys mindlessly typing the word freedom would not elucidate the word’s meaning, but they would show you a spike in the word’s usage.
Let’s look at the Times account of this miracle.
With a click you can see that “women,” in comparison with “men,” is rarely mentioned until the early 1970s, when feminism gained a foothold. The lines eventually cross paths about 1986.”
Are we really to believe that feminism drove the usage of the word “women?” I mean, it’s just as likely to be the opposite: medical discourse on women and hysteria, conservative arguments about women’s naturally blah blah etc. nature; sentimental novels designed to appeal to women readers but bearing no relation whatever to feminism as Cohen means it–it tells you almost nothing to know that the word increases in frequency.
Can I prove that? Let’s see–I’ll try searching for “women” and “hysteria.” Hysteria is a long flat line, way down there at the bottom, while “women” moves around like stock prices. There must be no connection between women and hysteria.
Ok, so we just missed the enormous psycho sexual literature about women and neuresthenia, the anxiety about about education and hysteria, we entirely missed the work of Sigmund Freud (probably a good thing); we don’t understand that such a thing as the “the Yellow Wallpaper” exists, or the phenomenon it documented.
In this sense it’s worse than useless: it allows Cohen, a smart woman working under deadline pressure, to confirm a really vapid cliche.
It’s not hard to make something like this massively more useful for humanist types: word pairings within the same text. How many times does “women” and “hysteria” appear in a single text? Or proximity searching–find “women” near hysteria.” Or show me what words “women” is most often paired with–that would be extremely useful.
But if you enter word pairs in Ngram Viewer it actually gives you the wrong impression–it gives you separate lines which only intersect in frequency. In that sense it does more harm than good–it reinforces some kind of odd idea that words bear no relation to other words. (While I don’t know for a fact that there a linguists who believe that, I’d risk a significant sum betting that there are).
And as Dan Cohen points out, we need to get to the texts right away–from the point of view of a historian, as a tool for getting to actual texts, Ngram Viewer is just a distraction. It’s no better than just entering “women” in the Google Books search box with a date range specified.
If this post has an irked tone it’s because so much money and hype and attention has been paid to something so obtuse.
If someone wants to show me what can be done with this tool, I’m eager to learn.
- this is snark: it is of course right around the year the Civil War broke out. ↩