Fun with Google’s Ngram: 10 interesting graphs

I spent the best part of a couple hours playing with Google Books’ Ngram thing. It evidently came out last year but I only just discovered it. For those unaware, it’s basically a tool that allows you to search for the prevalence or certain terms in Google Books’ entire catalog. You basically get a sense of how certain concepts, terms, or events rise and fall over time. Obviously you can’t make conclusions that are too firm and can’t infer causality because of correlation, but it can still be instructive in some cases. Here are a few that I found interesting:

1. “Kashmir”
I was interested in this one mainly because one of the stated assumptions of Pakistan’s strategy in backing militant proxies in Kashmir is to “internationalize” the dispute. That is, the Pakistani strategy has been to get the world talking about Kashmir, caring about Kashmir, and presumably leaning on India as a result of all this talk and care about Kashmir.

What’s fascinating is that this strategy seems to have been counterproductive. At the very least, you would have to say that the strategy has failed. As Pakistan’s support for militants increased in the early and mid 1990s, the preponderance of “Kashmir” in written work fell. Why that is, I have no idea.

2. “Soviet Union, Cold War, United States”
I really didn’t understand this one. How is the Cold War referred to more often – significantly more often, at that – than its two protagonists?

3. “Islam, terrorism”
I did this one just for kicks. Check out the results:

4. “postmodernism, functionalism, critical theory”
For the academic/nerd types out there.

5. “racism, sexism”
I recall in the 2008 election how there was some sort of perverse competition amongst some supporters of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton about which was the more dominant vice: racism or sexism. Despite the inanity of that debate – structures of power disparity, whether they be in the shape of patriarchy or racial superiority, are often mutually supportive, not oppositional – it was interesting to see which concern animated writers more. This gives us a pretty comprehensive answer:

Perhaps what’s most noteworthy of that graph is the pre-1940 period. Yikes.

6. “role model, celebrity”
I did this one because I’ve always had the hunch that the belief that celebrities should be role models is a relatively new one. The main reason for this, I submit, would be that our very understanding of the term “celebrity” has changed appreciably. It’s opened up considerably, to the point where famous people’s business is now our business, with or without their consent. Without being an expert on this sort of thing, I hardly think famous people in the 1930s or 1940s had every lurid detail of their life commented upon in the public sphere. And given our profound fascination with famous people’s missteps and trials and tribulations, it seems a little senseless that we concomitantly hold them up to be role models.

I don’t know what this graph shows, but I think it would be broadly consistent with the view that (a) the term “role model” itself is quite new, and (b) its rise is associated with a sharp increase in our attention to celebrities. I don’t think we can say anything definitive beyond that, certainly based on this graph alone.

7. “facebook, google”
This one was obvious. Perhaps the two best known online companies in the world. The results may surprise you – though you should be aware that they are only up to 2008; my guess is with newer data, this graph would look fairly different.

8. “orientalism”
This one is perhaps my favorite chart in the entire series. What knocks me over about this is it shows the power of one man to completely change the vocabulary of a certain body of scholarship. Edward Said literally changed the world, in his own way. The book was published in 1978, and a few years later, poof:

9. “Negro, African American”
Do you believe it took until the turn of the century for “African American” to finally outpace the use of “Negro”? (I first tried the search with “black” included as well but because “black” can refer to any number of things other than as a racial descriptor – black holes, black swans etc – I dropped it from the search).

10.”John Lennon,Paul McCartney,Robert Plant,Mick Jagger”
I don’t want to sound callous or anything, but this shows that if you’re a musician in the west, dying is a very successful career move, especially if it happens when you’re young.

You should go play around with it yourself, and see what you come up with.