War of the Words New Google tool invades Gene's mind

(Eric Shansby)
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Sunday, January 30, 2011

When a teenage me first expressed an interest in being a writer, my Aunt Ethel sat me down for a solemn conversation. Aunt Ethel was an English teacher and a magnificent cynic.

"Have you ever heard of William Faulkner?" she asked me.

"Saure," I said.

"Have you ever heard of Joseph Hergesheimer?"

"Uh, no."

"Well, there was a time when the American public considered Joseph Hergesheimer a better writer than William Faulkner."

Aunt Ethel's point was that the success of a writer is dependent less on his talent than on the fickle tastes of an idiot public. She didn't want this for me; she wanted me to be an insurance actuary. I noted her point but mostly disregarded it; my suspicion was that she was full of it. In the ensuing years, I never saw any evidence that Hergesheimer -- a flowery, minor novelist and a contemporary of Faulkner -- had ever challenged Faulkner in the public's fancy.

Now I have it. A new Google tool called NGram viewer lets you see, on a timeline graph, the comparative popularity of any two or more words, phrases or names, judged by the frequency of their mentions in the millions of English language books Google has digitized. A decade after her death, Aunt Ethel has been vindicated. Faulkner once was less popular than Hergesheimer but passed him in 1934 and left him in the dust.

I learned about this Google tool from my friend Tom Scocca, the Slate columnist. Tom has been publishing his excellent n-gram results for two months now: "Television" passed "Bible" in 1968. Also that year, "orgasm" passed "chastity." "Obese" passed "portly" in 1939.

Tom got me started on doing these on my own. I curse him now for all eternity. It is beyond addictive.

In 1940, "car" finally passed "horse" and never looked back.

In 1966, "black activist" passed "credit to his race."

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