Discrimination – ngram

I have an article I’m working on that reconsiders the concept of “discrimination” that I’ll probably publish next week. In the meantime, I thought it might be interesting to examine a brief history of that word for this Friday’s ngram.

As always, if you don’t know about Google’s ngram viewer tool, I provide a brief intro to it at this link, the first in this series.

The word “discrimination” has always been part of the English language, which should hardly surprise us, but it’s use has steadily increased since the turn of the last century, as shown in the plot below.


Prior to 1900, use of the word was remarkably steady. And I do mean it was really very steady. I’ve looked at a bunch of other words that shouldn’t have varied much in their usage over time (bones, composition, turquoise, vegetable) and most of them show variations in usage that are more pronounced than the variations seen in use of the word “discrimination” prior to about 1900. Definitely prior to 1880. In short, that’s about as stable of a baseline as you are going to find.

Then something happened.

Since around the year 1900 (and again around… you guessed it… 1960) use of the word increased until about 1975 after which it fluctuated a bit, but generally held steady. Our present-day usage is roughly 6X that of our use of the word a century ago.

What else is interesting is our use of the adjective “discriminatory.” Not only are we more likely to describe something in that way, prior to 1900 people apparently just didn’t describe things (or other people) as discriminatory at all. The usage is so minimal it hardly shows up on the plot.

(I also found the parallels between the rising and falling of the two words very interesting, which is why I scaled “discriminatory” up by a factor of 5 to highlight it. Not surprisingly the two concepts really do go hand in hand.)

All this data would seem to point to one of three scenarios (or some combination):

  1. There was little, if any, discrimination prior to 1900 and then we suddenly became discriminatory.
  2. There was always a lot of discrimination, but we only really started talking about it seriously after 1900.
  3. Our understanding of discrimination has evolved somewhat over time. Perhaps we were not thinking about discrimination enough in the past, but is it possible that we are a little hypersensitive about it these days?

I can say from personal experience that the allegation of “discrimination” and the use of “discriminatory” as an adjective (especially in reference to other people and public policies) really do flow quite readily off the tongues of many people. Perhaps a little too easily?

But that’s a subject for another blog…