Holistic History Extra: Lit History

Imagine a library. A library which contains every book written. Well, within reason. Since 1500. While you’re containing your excitement that yes, there are actually libraries like that, imagine the imaginary one has a search function. And we’re not talking searching for books.Searching for individual words. Individual words out of the trillions written across half a millennium. You could do a lot with that. You could trace trends in pop culture. You could chart the formation and destruction of ideas across time. You could search for “poop” and laugh uproariously for the next 500 years. In other words, it could be an extraordinary tool for charting history and culture connecting people across time.

Godammit, Internet, you’ve done it again.

The Google Ngram Viewer (it would be Google, they’ve done this kind of thing before) is a search tool for Google’s enormous imaginary library.  That is to say, it allows you to search through every single word of the 5,200,000 digitised books from throughout the history of Modern English, 1500 to the present. Don’t tell me you’re not at least a little bit interested. Now, as scientific methods go, it’s…about as scientific as a PhD in English Literature. Life isn’t reflected entirely by literature, after all, sometimes, literature tries to be as far from real life as possible. Plus, you kind of have to guess at cause and effect – why one word is popular at one time but dwindles at another is at its core educated guesswork. But it’s another fascinating thing nonetheless, and it’s got the makings of the objectivity and empiricism history is relying on more and more.  So here’s a few searches to get you started.

(Click on the images to enlarge)


war peaceAn easy one to start with, right? “War” starts out low and begins to spike just before 1914 – that’s predictable enough -then drops, but never as low as it had been before the First World Fuckup. Contained there are generations of war poets and, after that, the modernist writers of the Lost Generation. Then it spikes suddenly from about 1937 as Europe prepares for war again and drops more slowly from the Cold War and further into living memory. Peace follows the exact same pattern on a smaller scale. But that makes sense too. When do people think about an end to war the most?


war peaceSame shit, different language, using the Russian words for “War” and “Peace” and, for we uneducated few who can’t speak Russian, the same colours. “Peace” peaks in 1812: the same year Russia emerged victorious against Napoleon. That was a surprising result for everyone because a) Napoleon didn’t lose things and  b) The Russian Empire didn’t win things, and a source of much national pride for a country that not too long ago had been beset by plague, famine and angry Poles and was now set to conquer Europe. Another interesting jump is in the use of “War” from 1941, the year Hitler invaded the USSR. Almost until the war was declared, Stalin was intent on staying neutral, banning all mention of it in the media until it was unavoidable. Those media are responsible for the huge jump in the last part of the graph.


war peace

The changing face of places is also pretty clear to see. And not just because London’s looks eerily like the city’s own skyline. This ngram starts in 1770, and London begins as the unofficial capital of the lit world – and the capital of one of the empires running the real one (the fact that it’s mapping English texts helps, of course). New York’s rise to fame comes roughly during the “Gilded Age” of America’s history, the birth of monopolies and skyscrapers and silly moustachioed capitalists (kidding: they’ve always existed), and London’s decline comes during the decline of its empire before becoming a cultural capital during the “Swinging Sixties”. No-one really notices the large cities, the huge economic powerhouses of Tokyo and Beijing, until they have their booms – the miracle of Post-War Japan and the “Golden Sixties”, the Deng Xiaoping reforms from the 1980s in China. The graph ends before today. Beijing still rends upwards.


war peaceThis one…this one is just uncanny. “Capitalism”, “Communism”  and “Fascism”‘s use  in Literature more than slightly resembles how influential they were in real life, minus capitalism’s unusually shaky start – look how Communism starts shaky and gets stronger, almost overtakes Capitalism in the 1950s and then dwindles back to a sharp decline in the 1990s during the fall of the USSR. Fascism pops up out of the blue in the late ’20s and has its peak in 1943, then it’s unpopular until it’s revived as a left-wing insult in the 1960s. However, Capitalism peaks in the 1930s, the recovery period of the Great Depression. Maybe Capitalism is more often used as a curse than a compliment, and invoked more by critics than believers. By the 1980s, at least, it has its day. Does this sound familiar yet?

You’ve probably got some ideas of your own, if not I’ve bored you half to death with enough. It’s rare that you get a chance to measure ideas so empirically – and the Ngram’s not perfect, but it’s clearly hit the mark more than once. It doesn’t have to be about history, and some of the linguistics angles are the most interesting (see the vicious battle between “thee” and “you” in the 1600s, although you can probably guess who won) And, whatever you do, post any ideas you have and discoveries you make in the comments. The imaginary library is only going to get larger. Why not make yourself part of it?


Holistic History Extra: The Speech From Another Reality

There’s one type of history I usually wouldn’t touch with a Renaissance Venetian barge pole on this blog, and that’s alternate history. While it’s interesting to try and work your way through a “What If”, you need to understand what you’re talking about in minute detail to get anywhere. History, unfortunately, isn’t really about minute detail. But occasionally, just occasionally, you can get a glimpse of how things might have happened: from an idea, from an ambition, from a plan. Or, in the case of what I’m going to show you today, a contingency plan.

William Safire was a speechwriter and presidential aide for Richard Nixon in the late 1960s. He was one of the people who publicised the legendary Kitchen Debate, a bizarre event where Nixon and Khrushchev started a heated argument about their countries’ achievements in the plastic kitchen of an American “model home”. But in 1969 he had a different task, because somewhere high above his head were three men in a little metal box, about to make a small step for a man and – to paraphrase – a fucking huge one for mankind. But the White House was worried. The footage was to go live on television to 500 million people: what would happen if they failed? The first people to land on a surface other than Earth would go down through human history. But if they missed their rendezvous they could be stuck there forever, perfectly preserved in the lack of atmosphere, a grim reminder of the dark side of the Space Race. So Safire wrote a speech. A speech that was to turn this alternate turn of events into an act of national, maybe even global, heroism. Thankfully, it was a speech that was never used. But it remains hauntingly beautiful, the last transmission Armstrong and Aldrin would ever have heard in a terrible alternate reality where a momentous achievement was marred with tragedy. Here, in full, is that speech:


Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.


A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to “the deepest of the deep,” concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.

Holistic History Extra: Get your Arabic Name On

Ibn Battuta’s full name wasn’t printed in the article I posted about him, and to some that might seem odd. See, medieval Arabic names just aren’t like other names. To be specific, each one takes up a whole damn paragraph. Ibn Battuta’s full name is this:

Shams al-Din Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Addallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Ibn Battutah al-Lawati al-Tanji al-Maliki al-Maghribi

And that’s without naming any of the honorifics he had poured over him in his lifetime, beautiful titles like “Chief Qadi of Delhi” or any non-ceremonial nicknames, like “The Great Traveller”. See, Arabic names don’t provide a handle as much as all the information they thought was important about the person. So let me take it apart for a second – because dear god, I know some of you and you know who you are will be desperate to try and work out your own Medieval Arabic Name. So let’s get your M.A.N. on.

Laqab (Title) – “Shams al-Din”. Placed here, this is the equivalent of Mr or Mrs. But before you get a brilliant idea for a marriage-based celebrity gameshow, it’s not exactly the same. See, while Mr and Mrs are bastardised versions of Master and Mistress, the names of famous Arabs tend towards the divine. Shams al-Din literally means “the Sun of Religion”. You can also be Muhyi al-Din (“the Saviour of Religion”) or Sitt al-Mulk (“the Lady of Power”, a rare female example), if you really feel like it. You’ve probably heard of Salah al-Din (“the Righteousness of Religion”) before – although we usually spell it Saladin. For Ibn Battuta, the laqab essentially saying he’s a learned man. Maybe a better equivalent would be Ph.D, but hey, title’s a title.

Kunya (Reverse Patronymic)- “Abu Abdullah” I’m making up terms here, but this is the name of Ibn Battuta’s son. Which gets added to his name. Before his own name. Abu means “father of” (and interestingly, also “owner of”), and “mother of” is Umm. It’s generally a more intimate form of address than a title or personal name – and is probably more than a little awkward to explain to the kids who your name doesn’t show off.

Ism (Personal Name) – “Muhammad” Finally, some familiar ground. This would be a First Name or a Christian name in English. For obvious reasons this one is neither first not Christian, but you get my point.

Nasab (Patronymic) –  “ibn Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim” Patronymics are names taken from your father, where Ibn means “son of”. “Bint”, incidentally, means “daughter of” and I’m not even joking. So his father was called Abdallah, and his grandfather – who he was, in all likelihood, named for – was another Muhammad. You can literally go as far back as you deem necessary. Sultans, as you might expect, tend to go back to their most famous ancestor. The Prophet’s family traced theirs back to Adam and Eve, so the sky’s your limit here.

Nasab (Surname) – “Ibn Battuta”. Ah. This must be confusing. Ibn Battuta acts as a surname, hence the capitals on Ibn in English, but it’s shaped like a patronymic. That’s because his surname is taken from the founder of his family, Battuta, so his family are the “Sons of Battuta”. To be honest, not too difficult if you have a German-style surname like Johnson or Peterson, but still catches people out. Surnames can be literally anything. One Arabo-Persian dynasty named themselves Saffarids – “the Coppersmiths” – because their founder was so proud of his non-aristocratic metalworking background. However, they’re more often than not just ways to attach yourself to a particular ancestor.

Nisba (Regional Name) – “al-Tanji”. The nisba is a kind of name suffix that tells you everything you need to know about a person. You can have several, usually starting with al- and ending in -i (if you’re feeling maculine) or -iyya (if you’re feeling feminine). al-Tanji tells us that Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier in Northern Morocco. I’d use one myself but al-Coventryi sounds kind of terrible.

Nisba (Tribal Name) – “al-Lawati”. Tribal names were second only to family names in importance in Ibn Battuta’s Arab-influenced culture, so this is also an important nisba. The only confusing thing is that a tribe is more like a political alliance than a closely knit family. Tribes were constantly refashioned and genealogy reformed to fit political needs, so I guess if you’re playing along at home and don’t have any tribal ancestry, you can put your politics here. Arabia even had tribal factions who called themselves the “Rightists” and “Leftists” – the Qays and Yemen – so if you’re as willing to completely misunderstand medieval Arabic politics as I am think you’ll be fine.

Nisba (Scholastic Name) – “al-Maliki”. Oh god, another nisba? Al-Maliki refers to the school of law Ibn Battuta followed – there are four big ones in Sunni Islam and Maliki Law is the most prevalent in North Africa. I guess this one’s more important for Ibn Battuta than most people – he worked as the Chief Qadi of India for a long time – so it might be easier to put your school in than any school of law if you’re not a Muslim. I’m guessing…well, hoping you follow the laws of wherever you happen to live.

Laqab (Nickame) – “al-Maghribi”. Another Laqab, and we’ve finally come fill circle. This one acts less like a title, though, and more as a nickname. Nicknames had a special place in Arabic society, especially among famous people – go through a list of Caliphs and names like al-Mahdi (“the redeemer”) and al-Rashid (“the guided”) are sure to crop up. Al-Maghribi? That means “the Westerner”, and looking at Batutta’s life you can kind of see how he got it.

All credit to Tim Mackintosh Smith, the translator of this fantastic book, and please, try it yourself if you want to know more. It’s almost by definition a good travel book. Have fun making your own Arabic names, and first person to guess who Muhyi al-Himself Abu James Harry ibn James Potter al-Godric’s Hollow al-Phoenix al-Hogwarts The Boy Who Lived is wins a free Horcrux.

Holistic History Extra: Papa Doc’s Prayer

The extraordinary Lord’s Prayer, renamed “The Catechism of the Revolution”, from Haiti at the time of Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, has to be seen to be believed. I really hope it scans better in French or Creole, but it’s fast becoming my favourite (well, second favourite) weird fascist song.

“Our Doc,

Who art in the National Palace for life,

Hallowed be Thy name by present and future generations.

Thy will be done at Port-au-Prince and in the provinces.

Give us this day our new Haiti,

and never forgive the trespasses of the antipatriots who spit every day on our country;

let them succumb to temptations,

and under the weight of their venom,

deliver them not from any evil …”


Diederich, Bernard and Burt, Al, “Papa Doc,” pages 283-284, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1969

F. Abiola Irele, Biodun Jeyifo, The Oxford Encyclopedia of African Thought, Volume 1, page 328


Holistic History Extra: The Greatest Timelapse Ever Built

In my last post, I tried to argue the case that history is still in the making and the world is still changing rapidly. With that in mind, take a look at the new Google Earth Engine – something which I swear is the most amazing, beautiful and terrifying proof of that you will ever find. Because where Google Earth on its own (other Earths are available), allows you to skim through the entirety of the globe in detail…the Engine allows you to skim through history itself.

Here’s a little context: In 1972, NASA (it would be NASA, wouldn’t it?) launched the Earth Resources Technology Satellite. The beautifully named ERTS (it’s now called the Landsat) had a simple task – photograph as much of the globe as possible, in detail and in high quality.  The result – the “high quality” of the 1970s and the 2010s are not always compatible, except of course in terms of amazing hairstyles – is a collection of low-res images of everywhere you can think of from every year from 1972 to 2013. And this is where the Google Earth Engine comes in. Because the idea is simple – Google obtained the images from 1984 onwards, put them into a simple timelapse, allowed people to access it for free online – but the result is amazing. Because while the Landsat…well, sat, taking pictures idly in the upper atmosphere, it unwittingly captured 29 years of history on the earth below.

The Vlogbrothers have already covered the extraordinary environmental impact that you can observe over the time period, so I’m not going to bother telling you that. But there’s history at play here, and the most amazing part if that you can see it. Landsat captured the end of the Cold War and the subsequent urban growth – and rural decline – of the former USSR.  It captured globalisation with sprouting supermarkets, urban growth with ever-sprawling cities. It captured Haiti’s earthquake and Chernobyl’s explosion. In places, it manages to be beautiful, but in others it is absolutely terrifying – as cities expand and forests shrink, it gives off a powerful message about how much we realistically have left. I’m going to suggest you look through it yourself to get a sense of it – the little details seem to be by far the most powerful and amazing to me – but if you can’t get started let me offer you some suggestions -some mine, some Google’s – and a little context:

(Link here, then search with the bar at the top)


Rondonia sits right at the heart of the Amazon rainforest, but might not forever. This timelapse – one of the most worrying – shows the extent of the strip-cutting of the forest to make way for farmland. Look around, and all you can see is more cuts, more tears, less forest. From a political or economic point of view, this is fantastic – Brazil’s economy has grown massively in recent years, and is fast becoming one of the strongest and most stable in the world. But history forces us to look at the future as much as the present.


Dubai, while it had been rich since the discovery of oil in 1966 and its great market for Indian gold had developed later, really exploded in growth from the mid nineties onwards, when the city started to develop its tourism and high-wealth industry and cash in on the strict immigrant labour laws it maintained. You can see the city slowly develop from 1984 until – boom! – it starts building ridiculous skyscrapers and green parks and freaking artificial islands off its coast. It’s an amazing expansion to see condensed into a  few seconds.


London’s amazing just to look at, but scroll east to check out its docklands. They’ve been a site for urban development since 1988, when work on Canary Wharf began to turn the disused docklands into a commercial centre. Look a bit further and you can see The Millenium Dome  spring up, and even catch the beginnings of the Stratford Olympic Park.


This one, while subtle, is amazing. This is a map of the Berlin Wall – the circular wall that enclosed West German-alligned West Berlin with East German East Berlin. In 1984 it was standing. In 1989, it fell. Not only can you see a green patch emerge where the no-man’s land once stood, you can almost see the huge growth that both parts of Berlin experienced after reunification.

Holistic History Extra: F*** Yeah, Ninjas

Goddammit, ninjas. I devote a full paragraph to how awesome you are and weeks afterwards I’m still finding out that yes, there is more to say and yes, people reading this are definitely interested to hear it. This is Holistic History Extra – the first one, if you’re keeping track – and it’s going to be where all the useless (but still interesting) facts go. This time, it’s the Jut Su (techniques) of the Ninja – in particular, the amazing feats and strange tactics that made their mercenaries a symbol not only in pop culture, but in Japanese history. They’re amazing, they’re a little bizarre and I’d like to think I’ve picked out the best for you here:

Kageshin – “The Quiet Mind” technique should probably be known as the “badass clause”. The idea is that the body can only reflect the mind, so a nervous mind makes for a loud and obvious body. If you want to stay hidden, the idea is to keep yourself at Alan Rickman levels of excitement, and, as important research has shown, keeping a straight face while you’re doing your dirty work does make you look like a bit of a badass.

Ryohebi no jutsu – The “Serpent Crawl” doesn’t sound too dramatic: you crawl on all fours with your stomach to the ground. What’s amazing is the speed – this is actually supposed to be faster than walking, and almost as fast as running. On all fours. In the dark. Completely silently. Now discuss for a moment why some warlords would find the idea of ninjas so terrifying.

Dobutsujutsu – The imaginatively named “Using Animals” technique does what it says on the tin, but this goes a little further than riding horses and using sniffer dogs. I quote as my example the Bee Bomb – a pouch of venomous bees that you literally keep around your belt, then shake, open and throw at an enemy. It’s a grenade, but it can see you and sting you. Mostly used for distraction, using animals might be the first example of allergen warfare.

Hitsuke – The “Arson” technique was maybe a little more basic. Want to sneak into one village? Light a fire in the next one along, and the people run there to put it out. You’re left with an abandoned village and free reign…if not a clear conscience.

Hensojutsu – Finally, the technique of “Disguise”. And it’s probably the most diverse and important, because different occasions needed different disguises. The ninja had seven – for example priests who could cross borders freely, samurai who were the ruling class and commanded respect, farmers who…well, who paid attention to lowly farmers in the 1600s? It extended even further than people – my favourite on the list are “Rock disguise” and “Duckweed disguise” because making a person look like either one is a success in my book. And if your footprints need covering? Wear flat-soled shoes…flat soled shoes that leave the impression of wolves’ footprints to scare off anyone tracking you.

So the ninjas in conclusion. Long-lasting? No. Iconic? Sort of. And creative?

I think that’s a yes.