Tuesday, December 21, 2010...9:00 am

Trending topics on Google Books – using the Ngram Viewer

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Tired of the short-term focus of Twitter’s #trending topics? Here’s a great geeky toy to play with over Christmas – Google Books’ Ngram Viewer.

The Ngram Viewer allows you to enter search terms and see how frequently they are used over time. This is a kind of historic version of Twitter trends – nothing after 2008 at the moment, but its results can stretch all the way back to 1700.

Google Ngram Viewer – engagement

What can we see? How about “engagement” as a search term?

Clearly “engagement” was at its peak in the decade straddling the year 1780. Then it underwent a more-or-less two century decline until 1980, before mysteriously spiking up again. Why? It became much less important socially that people were getting engaged to be married – but much more important that they enjoyed whatever it was they were doing.

Google Books Ngram Viewer – digitalAnother interesting example is “digital”, using just the American English dataset. You’d rightly expect digital as a reference in books to come into its own with the advent of digital computing – but what are these small spikes in usage doing in the late 18th century?

It seems this was a fertile time for medical discovery – with herbalists and anatomists investigating the medical value of digitalis and how your fingers work.

Google is generating datasets for all the books it scans – from single word usage up to multi-word phrases. At the moment, single word datasets are the most complete in all languages Google is working with. Double-word datasets and above are in progress.

If you want to really alienate your family this Christmas, you can download the Google datasets here and start running your own experiments…

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