I’ve been fascinated with Google’s “ngram viewer” for some time now. I think it is incredibly informative to see how our language has changed with time as I will explain in a moment.
Informative, and sometimes sobering. Language changes can often indicate value changes and priority changes.
Google has done something amazing with their ngram tool. They have scanned millions of books from the previous several centuries and compiled information on how frequently individual words and phrases get used. When you open the site you immediately see how names like “Albert Einstein” and others have been used in the literature over time. Not surprisingly, prior to about 1915 there wasn’t a lot of use of the phrase “Albert Einstein” in the literature of the day. Since then use of that word has risen steadily.
Or, to illustrate with another one (closer to my heart) below is the ngram for the word “airplane.” The multiple lines are for multiple capitalizations (i.e. “airplane,” “Airplane” and “AIRPLANE”).
Prior to the invention of the airplane there really wasn’t any talk about them. Not surprising. Around World War One use of the word “airplane” started showing up, in large part because people started realizing they could be used as weapons of war. In the interwar period their use increased for many reasons, as did use of the word.
Then look what happened around 1940 – massive spike. Reason? World War Two. It was during WWII that the necessity of air superiority as part of a strategic victory became apparent. And, clearly, lots of people were talking about them. I think most history buffs will agree that aerial warfare very much determined the course of WWII.
Since WWII use of the word declined, but never disappeared. So we are still talking about them but their place at the center of our attention has subsided.
Airplanes are relatively neutral technologies (except as weapons of war) and it is not my intention to look at words like that. Rather, I want to investigate the rise and fall of words that will give us some insight into our perspectives on the more significant issues of life. I intend to post a quick article once a week just on this subject, and I hope to do it on Fridays so you have something interesting to ponder over the weekend.
This week’s ngram will be of the word “identity.”
The word “identity” has obviously always been with us, so unlike “airplane” or “Albert Einstein” it doesn’t have a beginning. However, something obviously happened after WWII. Use of the word seriously took off. In fact, it appears to be roughly 4X – 5X more popular these days than it was prior to about 1940.
What would cause such a massive rise in use of the word? Is it being used in reference to impersonal objects (e.g., “what is the identity of that plant?”) or is it more likely to be used in reference to ourselves and other people? I compared the use of “identity” to the use of the phrase “personal identity” and there is a strong correlation which suggests our use of that word relates more directly to ourselves and not the material world.
It would seem that the English speaking world went through something of an existential crisis starting in the 1940’s and ramping up in the 1960’s and again in the 1990’s. Who are we? Who am I? What does it mean to be human?
Do these questions sound familiar? That leaves us with two possible explanations:
- That humanity never bothered to ask those questions prior to WWII, or
- That we had a set of answers prior to WWII that we subsequently abandoned, and have been searching for new answers ever since.
The second option seems more likely to me. Humanity has always asked deep existential questions. And if that’s the case, then the English speaking world has spent the decades since 1940 searching for new answers after they abandoned the old answers.
Searching, but apparently not finding.