Friday, December 17, 2010

For Crissake...

A group of scientists has taken every single word out of every book from the 18th Century to the present, and compiled them in a database dubbed Culturomics. They claim that words are like genomes for our culture...hence the name. But is this true? I'd argue that only emotionally charged words and phrases (war, marriage, racial slurs, religious terms, etc.) can be thought of as such. The and's and or's are not as important. And then, what information about our culture can be gleaned from such numbers? Our level of pessimism or optimisim? Maybe. Our creativity? That's a little bit harder.

This theory can be tested at Culturomics' sister site, the Book Ngram Viewer. Simply type in a word or phrase to see how often it was used in a certain time period. Sadly, the use of both "love" and "joy" has sharply declined since the early 1800's. But not to worry..."in a pickle" is holding steady, and "for crissake" (which first appeared in the 1930's) is experiencing a tremendous rise in popularity.

But I think where it gets more interesting is when you start to compare the same word in different languages. For instance, in French and German literature, the word "love" is on the rise. In Russian lit, "love" had a crazy peak in the 1920's, but hasn't been used much before or since. And in Chinese, it wasn't even seen before the 1920's. Strangest of all, Spanish language books used the word like crazy in the early 1800's, but not much since.

So are we less loving than the Europeans? Did something happen in the Twenties to spike Russian love or introduce it to Chinese lit? And why did love disappear from Spain? While the data is interesting, conclusions are hard to find.

2 comments:

Donna Cappello said...

I like the comment from Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo - "ah, what the Christ!"

Katie Cappello said...

Hmmm, I wonder if that one will show up in the database...