Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2011 Issue

Google Ngrams:  What Words are Most Often Found in Books?

Ngram

Ngrams graph popularity of terms "flapper" and "hippie."

Leave it to the folks at Google to come up with another amazing new tool for us to use. I'm not yet sure of the practical uses for it, but it is something that will fascinate lovers of books and history for hours. It's called "Ngrams," and its existence relies upon the massive book-scanning project on which Google embarked in 2004.

 

At this point, Google Books' database contains scanned copies of some 15 million books. From this, Google has selected 5.2 million books, containing 500 billion words, for its Ngram word search. However, Ngrams does not simply match words. What it does is to determine how many books employ those words. They do not just provide a total, but place the matches on a chronological map. That way you can see how frequently a word has been used at various times. You can track the development, or antiquating of words or phrases by seeing how frequently they appear in books.

 

You can plot these graphs for single words or up to five words in combination. You can plot just one word or phrase, or several of them on the same graph to show a comparison. For example, the graph on this page is a comparison of the popularity of the words "flapper" and "hippie." "Flapper" reaches its peak in popularity in the 1920s, then tumbles, along with everything else, in the years of the Great Depression. Its use is then fairly constant over the past 70 years.

 

"Hippie," on the other hand, is a nonexistent word until the early 1960s. By the middle of that decade, it becomes more common in books than "flapper," a position it never relinquishes. It peaks in use around 1970, before settling down to regular, but less frequent usage.

 

Then there are the name changes. Compare "Hawaii" with the "Sandwich Islands." In the early days, the British gave the island chain the name "Sandwich Islands" in honor of the Earl of Peanut Butter and Jelly. That name starts showing up in the late 18th century, but "Hawaii" does not appear in the graph until the 1820s. It then slowly closes the gap, finally surpassing "Sandwich Islands" around 1890. Since then, the Sandwiches have slowly disappeared, while "Hawaii" became overwhelmingly more common.

 

This only applies to books in English, perhaps unsurprising because others may not have recognized the claims of the Earl's homeland. Books in French and German (you can sort these and several other languages separately) never showed much popularity for the "Sandwich" name, Hawaii becoming more common as early as the 1820s.

 

Another such example can be seen in the Turkish capital. For centuries it was known as "Constantinople." In 1930, the Turks changed its name to "Istanbul." There is no "Istanbul" in the books prior to this date, but within a couple of years, it quickly surpasses centuries-old "Constantinople."

 

Some times names get reused. "Engelbert Humperdinck" first appears near the turn of the 20th century as the music of the German composer gained popularity. His name peaked in the 1920s and then began to decline. However, in the 1960s, the name starts bouncing back up after the English crooner adopted the old composer's funny-sounding name as his own.

 

A similar pattern can be found for "Benjamin Harrison." Harrison was the name of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, while his grandson of the same name became President in 1884. Harrison has two peaks on the graph, a century apart.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> A Rare 3-rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machine. $70,000 to $90,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Important collection of correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and Bruno Rossi. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Walt Whitman Autograph manuscript containing his thoughts on death. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> David Roberts. <i>Holy Land</i>. Six volumes. 1842-1849. First edition. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Extensive collection of Ray Bradbury's primary works, most signed or inscribed. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Peter Force. Declaration of Independence. $12,000 to $18,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Steinbeck. <i>Grapes of Wrath</i>. A fine copy of the first edition. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Lewis & Clark. <i>Travels to the Source of the Missouri River</i>... First English edition, extra-illustrated. 1814. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Manuscript document signed by Nuno de Guzman relating to Hernan Cortes, 1528. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> “Nos los inquisidores..." The first book in English printed West of the Mississippi. [1787]. $5,000 to $8,000.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions