Divisive – hate speech – ngram

Recently I looked into the word “divisive” (and again) and the phrase “hate speech.” Hate speech came along much later than the phrase “divisive” entered the mainstream – and much quicker – but it turns out there was an interesting nugget hiding in the data.

As always, if Google’s ngram viewer is new to you, here’s a quick intro.

Divisive slowly rose in popularity about half a century ago, but hate speech burst onto the scene quite suddenly only a couple of decades ago. But something interesting happens when we narrow the scope. If we:

  1. only look at years prior to 1990, so we hide the sudden (and distracting) rise of “hate speech”
  2. get rid of Google’s “smoothing” function, and
  3. scale “hate speech” up a bit until the trend is observable…

… then we find something interesting, as shown in the chart below.


Prior to about 1910 the phrase “hate speech” was very rarely employed. In fact, it was almost never used. Starting around 1910 the phrase became used on a somewhat more regular basis, though obviously it did not hit the mainstream for quite a while. Shortly after “hate speech” started showing up regularly on the radar, the concept of “divisive” began its steady climb in regular usage.

What I found interesting was the fact that “hate speech” didn’t actually emerge on the scene out of nowhere, even though that’s what last week’s chart looked like. The concept was already in somewhat regular use for several decades before it took off around the mid-1980s. In fact, if you look carefully, you’ll notice that the valleys between the peaks (e.g. around 1920 and again around 1930) become less and less common, and shorter and shorter, with time. After about 1950 it gets used more often than not in any given year.

Now, of course, we must avoid the temptation to read too much into the data. After all, I’m sure some book, somewhere, used the phrase “hate speech” in the year 1910. Similarly, I don’t think we should read anything significant into the fact that this data shows more use of the phrase in, say, 1918 than it does in 1940. The only conclusions I think it is safe to draw are:

  • Even though the phrase took off around 1990, it really began showing up closer to 1910, and
  • Between 1910 and 1990 it’s usage slowly, but steadily, increased.

Even though the phrase seemingly exploded out of nowhere around 1990, it was actually already in somewhat regular use, at least in certain circles. Around 1990 it simply switched from being a fringe concept to being a mainstream concept.

Given what we can see of the trends in the use of “divisive” and “hate speech” in our everyday language, it would seem change was afoot from around the time of the middle of last century, and the change accelerated toward the end of last century. And if that change involved more divisiveness and hate speech (or, at the very least, an increase in accusations to that effect, whether true or false,), then that change probably wasn’t in the right direction.