Are we more or less virtuous than we were a century or two ago? That may be hard to measure, but one thing that is easy to measure is how often we speak of virtues.
And this is the subject of this week’s ngram.
As always, here’s the very first article in this series to provide an introduction to Google’s ngram viewer if you aren’t familiar with how it works.
No intro needed for this one; here’s the chart.
The word “virtue” itself – the orange line – has seen a massive decline in usage since 1800 and, not too surprisingly (at least to my mind), various actual virtues have similarly suffered under the linguistic chopping block. We are less likely to speak of “patience” or describe somebody as “gracious” or “honest.” Apparently “perseverance” has all but disappeared, which might help explain why so few New Year’s Resolutions survive even to Easter.
This might suggest that we are becoming less virtuous, but there seems to be a glimmer of hope. “Compassionate” saw a steady decline, but then it resurfaced and appears to be on the rise since 1940. It seems we are once again speaking of that particular virtue, even if the others are still consider outdated.
So it’s a glimmer of hope, but a somewhat faint glimmer. Still, we’ll take what we can get.