Human rights – ngram

Last week I compared the trend of “duties and responsibilities” to the trend of “rights” and noticed how around 1960 we became very interested in our rights and less interested in our responsibilities.

This week I want to take a look at the concept of “human rights.”

Again, if you haven’t read my brief introduction to Google’s ngram viewer and what it can teach us, it can be found at this link.

If the concept of “rights” grew in frequency around 1960, I think it’s safe to say the concept of “human rights” exploded on the scene at roughly the same time. Technically the concept was bounced around prior to the early 1970’s, but it sure didn’t get the same attention it did after that time as the following chart shows.


Regardless of capitalization of the word (it’s a good idea to check this variation) the concept of human rights was barely discussed prior to about 1940 after which time it started to show up on the radar. This is likely due to the fact that the UN declaration of human rights was signed in late 1948. There was a slow growth in the use of the term prior to that, and subsequent to the signing of the declaration usage remained very steady for a little over two decades.

But in the early 1970’s the phrase took off like a rocket. Almost overnight the concept of human rights became a much hotter topic of discussion than any time in the previous two centuries, and even subsequent to the signing of the UN declaration.

Does that mean that “human rights” are somehow arbitrary; having only hit the mainstream within the past half century or so? Should we take away human rights? Perhaps a better approach – in the spirit of last week’s ngram – would be to dedicate just as much time to discussing our responsibilities and duties toward others as we do demanding that those around us respect our rights.

I find it interesting that Canada has a “Charter of Rights and Freedoms” but nothing like a “Charter of Duties and Restrictions.” Perhaps we should get moving on that.