Duties, responsibilities and rights

This week’s Google ngram compares three words. I’ll start by comparing two of the words, “duties” and “responsibilities,” then I’ll compare that trend to the word “rights.”

If you didn’t read the introduction to Google’s ngram viewer that I previous wrote about, you can read that here.

The words “duties” and “responsibilities” have an interesting history. For the past couple of centuries one word has been steadily declining and the other steadily increasing as the following chart shows.


Google’s ngram viewer can help us further analyze the data. We might think that the concept of “duties” is fairly similar to the concept of “responsibilities” so perhaps we would like to see how the total usage of both of those words has changed over time. In other words, I don’t really care which word they use, have people generally talked more, or less, about their obligations to something other than themselves? Well, we can chart the total use of both of those terms, as shown below.


Even if we consider the two of them as representing more or less a similar idea, it would seem we have spent less and less time discussing that idea.

But let’s take that a step further and consider the opposite concept. On the one hand we might consider our responsibilities toward others, but on the other hand, we might consider the responsibilities that other people have toward us. Or, in other words, our “rights” as shown in the chart below.


Well isn’t that interesting. We have been less and less inclined to discuss concepts around our “duties” and “responsibilities” but we have become very interested, especially around the 1960’s, in discussing “rights.” In fact, until around 1950 or 1960 rights and responsibilities were given roughly equal consideration. After the 1960s “rights” shot up significantly while “responsibilities” saw a somewhat accelerated decline in interest.

Rights and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin. If you have a right that necessarily means that I have a responsibility with respect to your right. From that perspective it would seem easy to argue that the conversation was more or less balanced until about 1960. After that time the discussion seemed to focus on the “me” side of the coin, and not the “somebody else” side of the coin.

Around 1960 we spent less time looking out the window and more time looking in the mirror, in a manner of speaking.