How much can Google Ngrams really tell us about history?

Google Ngrams is a fun tool that let’s you search the Google Books’ archive for the frequency of a given word over time. You can, for instance, see when people started referring to the “Great War” as “World War I”: The tool has, not surprisingly attracted attention from scholars looking to use it to track ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
609864_130513_warngram2.png
609864_130513_warngram2.png

Google Ngrams is a fun tool that let's you search the Google Books' archive for the frequency of a given word over time. You can, for instance, see when people started referring to the "Great War" as "World War I":

The tool has, not surprisingly attracted attention from scholars looking to use it to track public sentiment or cultural preoccupations over time. One widely-blogged paper from earlier this year used Ngrams to chart emotion words, finding that language used in books got sadder during wars and economic recessions and that language has in general gotten less emotional over time. Slate's Katy Waldman explained at the time why this should set off alarm bells:

Google Ngrams is a fun tool that let’s you search the Google Books’ archive for the frequency of a given word over time. You can, for instance, see when people started referring to the “Great War” as “World War I”:

The tool has, not surprisingly attracted attention from scholars looking to use it to track public sentiment or cultural preoccupations over time. One widely-blogged paper from earlier this year used Ngrams to chart emotion words, finding that language used in books got sadder during wars and economic recessions and that language has in general gotten less emotional over time. Slate‘s Katy Waldman explained at the time why this should set off alarm bells:

And then there’s the idea that oscillations in the Ngram graphs say something meaningful about the collective mood of a country. Acerbi told Nature magazine that “just by doing a somewhat crude analysis of emotion words it is possible to find trends that resonate with what we know about history.” Confirmation bias alert! Certainly, it is possible to cherry-pick historical events that support a particular reading of a line’s peaks and dips. Whether those events actually explain the ebb and flow of moody words through the years is far from certain. (The researchers even noted that the World War I era didn’t see the expected rise in mournful terms.) 

It seems like there may be some similar cherry-picking happening in a new paper by George Mason University economist Daniel Klein:

In this very casual paper, I reproduce results from the Google Ngram Viewer. The main thrust is to show that around 1880 governmentalization of society and culture began to set in – a great transformation, as Karl Polanyi called it. But that great transformation came as a reaction to liberalism, the first great transformation. The Ngrams shown include liberty, constitutional liberty, faith, eternity, God, social gospel, college professors, psychology, economics, sociology, anthropology, political science, criminology, new liberalism, old liberalism, public school system, Pledge of Allegiance, income tax, government control, run the country, lead the country, lead the nation, national unity, priorities, social justice, equal opportunity, economic inequality, forced to work, living wage, social needs, our society, bundle of rights, property rights, capitalism, right-wing, left-wing, virtue, wisdom, prudence, benevolence, diligence, fortitude, propriety, ought, good conduct, bad conduct, good works, evil, sentiments, impartial, objective, subjective, normative, values, preferences, beliefs, and information.

First of all, the longterm decline of the word “liberty” probably has more to do with the fact that people now more commonly use “freedom” to refer to the same thing, a trend that was noted by the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal back on 2010: 

Klein attaches significance to the fact that terms like “nationalization,” “income tax” and “government regulation” increase in frequency over the 20th century, suggesting that this indicates a more bureaucratized society. But how hard would it be to generate graphs showing that our society is getting closer to the sort of economic model Klein favors? 

Check out “free market”:

Or “libertarian”:

Or individual freedom/liberty:

This isn’t to argue with Klein (or Karl Polanyi’s) larger point, but just to point out that Ngrams can be highly imprecise given the limited number of books the farther back you go, and the lack of context for how a word is used. (Richard Dawkins uses the word “God” hundreds of times, for instance.) It’s awfully easy to make these graphs show whatever you want them to. 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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