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?