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.
- The program doesn’t care for hyphens, periods, or other punctuation marks. Apostrophes have to be the straight up and down kind, as in this look at “Bunker Hill” replacing “Bunker’s Hill.”
- It’s case-specific, so “Sons of Liberty” is different from “sons of liberty”.
- For books published in the 1700s, try putting an “f” where the “long s” should be: “Bofton” shows up more than “Boston.” Some Google Books scans have been adjusted for that typographical shift, and others haven’t.
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.