Thanks to Google’s ngrams project page I have wasted my scarce spare hours looking at micro trends in literature. A couple of months ago, the Google ngrams project presented a database of all the words from Google’s extensive book collection. Making the books freely available presents copyright issues, but a database of word frequency in a collection of books is legal. They even created a simple graphing tool so you can basically play with the data. Or you can download the entire dataset for your own purposes. Micro-trends in literature might not sound very exciting, but once I started trying words, it became an addictive tool to try to prove my zany cultural theories.
One graph seemed very appropriate for today, International Women’s Day. I plotted the words “men”, “women” and “children” versus time. And look!
“men” in blue, “women” in red, “children” in green
The years range from 1800 to 2008 and you can see clearly that the word “men” (the blue line) rules by a long shot up until about 1920. To be fair, “men” can be used in a generalized sense to mean both men and women similar to the word “mankind”. Since there’s no context I can’t distinguish what percentage of the words actually refer to both sexes.
But the interesting part of the graph is the uptick in the usage of “women” starting during the era of 1960s feminism. Even more interesting, “women” overtakes “men” in the mid-1990s.
Shortly afterwards, “women” decreases and “men” once again rule. A decline in feminism? Or perhaps the bubble in the 1990s was due to the peak in so-called chick-lit which has since gone out of favor. To provide a cultural reference point, Bridget Jones Diary, the epitome of chick-lit, came out in 1996.
“Children” seem to have a steady increase all the way from the 1800s to the present day. The slow rate of increase in the word “children” surprises me since there’s been an explosion of children’s books since the days of Beatrix Potter. Perhaps Google has disdained uploading children’s literature into its database? I also tried the words “boy” and “girl” and they show a lower percentage of usage than “children”:
“children” in blue, “boy” in red, “girl” in green
Happy International Women’s Day.