Thursday, November 17, 2011

Google's amazing Ngram, and terrorism trends

Google has a wonderful and fun project called Ngram, which searches the vast collection of books on Google Books for given words or phrases. For example let's compare the relative likelihood of finding the words "sensual" or "sensuous" in any of the huge literature Google Books covers, from 1800 to 2008:
So what on earth would cause this rise of "sensuous" in the late 19th century? This:
sensuous
1640s, "pertaining to the senses" coined (from L. sensus) by Milton to recover the original meaning of sensual and avoid the lascivious connotation that the older word had acquired by Milton's day, but by 1870 sensuous, too, had begun down the same path. Rare before Coleridge popularized it (1814).
So "sensuous" started heading down the same lascivious path as "sensual" in the Victorian era, and promptly increased its share of mentions in English literature!

One other Ngram image for tonight. This is the frequency of the word "terrorism" since 1970:
I wondered for a moment why the slopes looked familiar. Then I remembered this graph from the Global Terrorism Database, showing the frequency of terrorist attacks around the world between 1970 and 2007:
They don't match perfectly, partly because the Global Terrorism Database shows only the frequency of attacks, not their severity, but we do see a similar rise in the 1970s and 1980s, a decline in the 1990s, and recovery in the 2000s. This makes me wonder if Ngram can indicate other real world trends. Absolutely intriguing.

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