Since I put down The House of Mirth, I’ve been fascinated by the use of vocabulary. In conversation with my husband about the subject, he told me of one of his university friends from here in Paris who created a system of tracking the use of language throughout time. Obviously, I was all ears.
In fact, this friend was invited, along with his collaborators, to a TED conference in 2011 to discuss his research. The research was part of their post-graduate work at Harvard. Jean-Baptiste Michel is my husband’s friend and in the video he’s the French one; you’ll be able to tell which one is French even before he opens his mouth! Trust me.
The video is exciting and new and adventurous, as is Ngram Viewer, the program that benefits from their research and has now been developed by Google. The idea is explained clearly in the video; but to give you a brief outline, essentially what they did is to scan all the documents and books and articles and writing of any kind into a giant database (5 million titles) and from there they are able to trace the usage of a particular word since the beginning of popularly published literature. Fascinating! (In the Google program online, you can input the period of time as well as the words in which you are interesting in researching.)
I mentioned in my last post on Edith Wharton that many of the words she engaged on a routine basis are no longer in use, or at least I had not come across them before. This program follows that evolution. Interestingly, some words enjoyed a heyday, say, in the 1830s and 40s and then fall completely out of use for a hundred years until they resurfaced in our popular lexicon.
Here are some examples I created with the Google Ngram Viewer program using the words from Edith Wharton’s list:
The words I looked up are listed on the top of the graph and are color coded in the line graph itself. You will see the number of occurrences to the left and the date of popular usage on the bottom of the graph.
Here’s a more expansive, detailed view:
Note how the word Effulgence was hardly used at all from 1820 to 1960 and then all the sudden an influx of occurrences erupted. Vicissitudes is another interesting example: very popular in the mid 1800s and then suddenly popular again in the latter half of the 20th century into the 2000s.
The abrupt reoccurrence of certain words begs the question: What happened in our society to stimulate the use of certain words that have previously fallen into disuse?
Something to keep us thinking!