In the spirit of Thanksgiving, any guesses as to whether we are more likely to use the word “thankful” these days as compared to the recent past?
As always, for those in need of an introduction to Google’s ngram viewer, please see here.
This one I found interesting. During the first half of the nineteenth century the word seemed to be on a gradual rise. People were using it more and more frequently. Then, around 1860, it peaked and started dropping.
And boy, did it drop! Its usage fell to roughly half the usage it had in 1800; roughly 25% of its frequency at the peak in 1860.
Thankfully (yes, that word selection was intentional) the usage seems to have bottomed out and is starting to recover. It would seem that we hit rock bottom around 1980.
How to explain this? My speculative theory has something to do with the great leaps and bounds of progress that have been made in the standard of living in the English speaking world. Imagine all the amazing improvements that have been made to medicine, technology, communications, transportation and so much more. As those changes were taking place during the nineteenth century I expect a lot of people were quite appreciative of the improvements that were taking place.
But it’s so easy to become complacent, isn’t it? As progress continued we were still excited about the change, but because “progress” was seen to be inevitable its initial lustre faded. We enjoyed the improvements, but they were no longer surprising and transformative. Instead, it grew to be understood as something which was bound to happen eventually; it was fate, just a matter of time.
And, with time, we grew to understand these improvements as something reality owed us. We were entitled to them. Free health care for all. Free university education for all. Heck, people are even claiming that certain television packages from the networks are “discriminatory.” Just over a century ago owning a television in the first place was considered pretty special; now it is akin to a human right.
The attitude toward these life-changing improvements has altered so significantly that our elite cultural commentators have begun to heavily weigh in on the situation. My personal favourite is Dr. Yankovic. Below is a short documentary he filmed that expertly tackles this complex and interconnected subject.