Words and their historical use

One of the little-known treasures made by Google is a tool known as the Ngram Viewer. When you enter phrases into the Google Books Ngram Viewer, it displays a graph showing how those phrases have occurred in books over the years. With over five million books and counting, this tool provides an interesting look into our language and the way we use it.

The correlation between these sets of data can be quite interesting. For example, a comparison of the verb “anxious” with the noun “anxiety”, you’ll notice a distinct reversal in usage. Up until 1940, “anxious” is consistently more well-used. In the early 40s, however, the use of the word “anxiety” begins a rapid upward climb that by 1960 puts it well in the lead.

Why the odd reversal? Perhaps it indicates a fundamental shift in the way we view our feelings. The word “anxious” describes an acute state of being, while “anxiety” tends to be more chronic. This could be caused by the rise of pop psychology, and the subsequent explosion in the use of labels to describe our problems. The Ngram Viewer provides only raw data; we’re left to draw our own conclusions.

Check out the Google Ngram Viewer here; try searching for words you think may show some correlation. I found a search for “freedom”, “liberty” and “rights” very intriguing. If you run across anything interesting in your searches, I’d love to hear about it. Thanks for reading!