J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, January 14, 2011

Boston 1775 Visits the Ngram Viewer

Last month brought a new time sink from Google Books, the Ngram Viewer, which searches the entire database for requested phrases. As an example, LibraryThing’s Jeremy Dibbell mentioned how @cliotropic had asked to compare terms for trousers (including the modern “jeans” and “pants”). I pushed that backwards, asking for a comparison of “breeches” (“britches,” the phonic spelling, produced negligible results), “pantaloons”, “trowsers” (the old spelling), “trousers”, and “pants.” Here’s the result.

The words “breeches” and “pants” have additional, non-sartorial meanings, of course. Nonetheless, it’s clear how the first word/garment became much less popular between 1780 and 1980, and the second much more. “Trowsers” overtook “pantaloons” and “pants” in the 1810s, and bowed to “trousers” in the 1830s.

However, I also found some glitches in the Ngram Viewer database. Its results are only as good as the input data. Here’s a comparison of the phrases “Boston Tea Party” and “destruction of the tea.” That shows some examples of the former phrase from before 1820, but clicking into the data reveals that those are simply volumes with the wrong publication date applied. With numbers so small, a few errors can really shift the lines. Still, we can see how the “Boston Tea Party” label overtook the older “destruction of the tea” around 1890, and eclipsed it since.

Other quirks:

All those grains of salt applied, Ngram Viewer is still a compulsive delight.

Who got the most press, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Thomas Jefferson, or John Adams? (Of course, there might be more than one John Adams.)

When did Americans start writing about “Sally Hemings”? (But note: That blip of early mentions is mostly misdated material. I can’t figure out a way to see examples of people writing about her without using her full name.)

Look how “von Steuben” overtook “de Steuben” (the general’s own usage) in the twentieth century.

How famous did Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, become in the early 1800s, relative to other scientists?

Are people learning how to spell the name of young Christopher Seider?

See how “lobster back” starts to appear in significant numbers after 1820, and “lobsterback” at the time of the Centennial.

Or headgear. “Mob cap” starts its rise in 1800, “tricorn hat” in 1880.

In the late 1900s the name of Crispus Attucks starts to appear far more often than the (more common) names of the other victims of the Boston Massacre.

The new term “vaccination” overtook “inoculation” twice, and “smallpox” replaced “small pox.”

Of the spellings “huzzah”, “hurray”, “huzzay”, “hooray”, “hoorah”, or “hurrah,” the last has dominated for a long time. Remove it to see how the Z spellings used to be more popular.

Where do we see the euphemisms “appeal to heaven” and “recourse to arms”?

The phrases “liberty tree”, “liberty pole”, and “liberty cap”? (Once again, the results for the early end of the timeline look suspect to me. I’ve learned to distrust those symmetric plateaus.)

How Henry W. Longfellow (after 1860) and Esther Forbes (after 1940) made Paul Revere a household name, with John Hancock and Henry Knox for comparison.


John L. Smith said...

Wow! The Google Ngram viewer is pretty cool, considering its limitations. I occasionally get to substitute teach this portion of American history to 8th graders...and they will think this Viewer is pretty cool. As do I! Thank you, Mr. Bell!

Corporal Dalton said...

This is fantastic! What a great guide to understanding proper language of the time!
I'm afraid the "headgear" link goes to the "lobsterback" page.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for sounding the alert, Corporal! I fixed that link.

Mitch Kachun said...

I especially appreciate the Ngram showing the Boston Massacre victims. Of course, except for Attucks and perhaps Maverick, the names of the other victims are fairly common and the results would include lots of "hits" that refer to other individuals. Since few if any other people named Attucks would be mentioned in a book, it would seem that references to Attucks far outstrip references to any others throughout the time period.