Five things I learned from Google Ngram

Note: I promised that I’d ask Richard Stallman if I had represented his ideas correctly. Turns out I hadn’t. I have pasted his response in the comments section below. It’s a fascinating debate, and goes to the heart of Talknormalism: if you describe something with a misleading name, then you start to make assumptions based on the name, not on the facts.

Before I went on holiday, I pointed out the address of the Google Ngram viewer, which originally came from my creative friend Ryan Hayes. Ngram allows you to search for the frequency of a word or phrase in books going back to 1500: the database is 500 billion words. You type in the phrase, and it draws a graph for you.

You can imagine that after a couple of Mojitos on Miami Beach last month I was thinking about little else, so here’s what I thunk:

1. Intellectual property

I once wrote a book criticising the abuse of our intellectual property laws, but the more people I meet who have profited from them, the less I feel like defending IP in its current form. I particularly recall speaking at a very posh luxury goods conference in Paris which made me want to set about my fellow panellists with a cosh.

Dr Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation is the enemy of lazy IP thinkers, and in this article he argues that “intellectual property” is a meaningless term, popularised for propaganda purposes by the people who have most to gain financially from it, and that it was rarely heard until 1990. Here’s the Ngram of intellectual property that he created, showing how recent the concept is:

Original research: Dr Richard Stallman

2. Angels

As committed Talknormalist Brett Hetherington writes on his blog, “we live in superstitious times”. Having seen my tip, he used Ngram to go searching for “angels”, and discovered that, in a secular age, we’re actually writing twice as much about these fantasy beings as we were 30 years ago. Brett or Dr Stallman might argue that intellectual property is no more real than the idea of an angel: both concepts being a convenient construct designed to give power to, and increase the revenues of, global organisations that seek to exploit us. I’ll email Dr S to ask, and Brett can comment below if he thinks I’ve overstepped.

Original research: Brett Hetherington

3. Paedophiles (or pedophiles)

Moral panic or long-overdue recognition of a problem that was ignored for too long? Although the term was coined in the 19th century, we certainly write a lot more about paedophiles these days.

4. Low-hanging fruit

The Patient Zero of buzzword bingo was not always so pervasive. The phrase took off at about the same time as “intellectual property” did – probably because many of the same people were using both phrases. If some consultancy firm made up the phrase “low-hanging fruit” today, it would probably use IP law to protect it, and we’d all have to talk about MegaGlobalConsult Low Hanging Fruit™ instead. I think I’m saying that we got lucky, but it doesn’t feel that way.

5. Honesty and transparency

The great thing about “transparency” is that it doesn’t have ethical baggage – it’s a technical description of your activity that’s suited to amoral business relationships. Therefore transparency is a much more useful word than “honesty” if you work in marketing. Transparency is jolly popular lately, but honesty is in long-term decline – in books, anyway. And we write more often about angels than we do about honesty, which is proof that we’re collectively bonkers.

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13 Responses to “Five things I learned from Google Ngram”


  1. 1 Richard March 7, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    Mmm – that’s fun. Intrigued to find symmetrical usages, where the phrase goes out of fashion and back in (or vice versa). “Lumber” for example. (Hm: “scum” and “profit” have similar profiles. How good is the weighting, I wonder?)

  2. 2 Richard March 7, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    This could go on all day. “Profit,charity” is poignant. As is “talent,luck”.

  3. 3 Tim Phillips March 7, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    It’s addictive, isn’t it. I’m trying to find the perfect word pair that explains everything. When I find it I’ll go on the news and sit there in silence, staring at the camera and pointing at the graph like the mad monk of Talknormalism.

    The nation will gasp and together we will vow to return to the lost golden age before we all became dribbling idiots.

    In this scenario it’d have to be the *TV* news, of course.

  4. 4 Brett Hetherington March 7, 2011 at 9:01 pm

    Thanks for the links, Tim. You said, (and I fully agree) that: angels are “a convenient construct designed to give power to, and increase the revenues of…organisations that seek to exploit us.”

    While I know there are many people doing wonderful things to help others in the medical world I would say that the above statement is equally true about the title “Doctor.” It is also a word that has long had the connotation of “giving power and increased revenues” to an individual who may not merit the respect that the term often brings.

    At least Richard Stallman does not call himself “Dr Stallman” on his website.

  5. 5 Chris Long March 8, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Fascinating as ever, just one thought though. The number of imbecillic phrases being written has grown massively with the introduction of the computer, and the number of those phrases that can be counted and indexed has grown equally massively with the invention of internet.

    So the imbecillity is a subset of the technical/non-technical masses biased to people who are ‘on the net’ and the books that Google has copy and pasted – with full respect to copyright, oh god yes – onto its website.

    Thus we are looking at a self-selecting subset of humanity.

    Therefore is there a chance that we can get off the imbecility travellator and walk on our own? That is: is there hope?

    Two things

    1/ what is going on with the people that don’t use the web and don’t use the phrase intellectual property. Do they have pubs and interesting people?

    and

    2/ as a part IP group are we going to find ourselves on the same spaceship as the telephone sanitizers, management consultants and hairdressers?

    (Oh the irony: the people who ‘get’ number 2 already have their tickets and the people that google it will get theirs in the post)

  6. 6 Chris Long March 8, 2011 at 10:50 am

    And again I hit send before engaging spell check – sorry

    C

  7. 7 Tim Phillips March 8, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    Re:2. If I remember correctly, the rest of the human race was wiped out by a disease caught from a dirty telephone. So I’d be pleased to be on the spaceship of which you speak.

    I’m sure there is hope: just because we write about things in books doesn’t mean we have to believe them. Or even read the book, for that matter, especially when there’s telly on. I’m not sure my argument ended up in the optimum place there, but you know what I mean.

  8. 8 jo higgins March 10, 2011 at 11:38 pm

    quirk of typography that didn’t translate makes for a very sweary period in the late 16th century if you type in a certain 4-letter word… oh hell, someone had to lower the tone.

  9. 9 Tim Phillips March 10, 2011 at 11:59 pm

    Gosh, that’s right. In fact, the 16th century is pretty sweary all round, it seems. Good for them.

  10. 10 Tim Phillips March 13, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    As promised, the response from Dr Richard Stallman:

    The first point doesn’t do justice to the problems of the term “IP”. There are two problems, and it mentions only the simpler one.

    The deeper problem with the term “IP law” is that it sounds like one thing. There are at least ten of those laws, and each does something specific. They are very different. If you think of them as one thing, it will lead you astray.

    An example of how it can lead you astray is in point 4. It talks of “using IP law” to “protect” an expression. I don’t think any of those dozen-odd laws can be used to get a monopoly on use of an expression; there is no such thing.

    Thus, using the term “IP” in your thinking misled you about the facts of these laws. It led you to suppose that there is some general principle like “Whatever you create in your mind, you have a monopoly on.” That is not true – there is no such law. The laws that really exist are all more specific.

    The problem with “angel” is totally different. It is quite clear
    what an angel would be, clear enough that we can assert that apparently they do not exist.

    The various laws some people label “IP” do exist, but they are so different that it’s misleading to generalize about them. Each of the laws is something, but “IP” is not something. It is an incoherent concept.

  11. 11 Ashley May 13, 2011 at 11:54 am

    On the “angels” thing: this is a bit simplistic. The word “angel” is used for all kind of meanings these days, for example:

    1) Business angel, investment angel
    2) Someone can be described as an “angel”, especially a child

    I just read a book called “damp squid”, which has some really good sections on the changing use of words over time.

  12. 12 Brett Hetherington May 13, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    The only simplistic “thing” about “the angels thing” is that people who choose to use a term like angels are appealing to a simplistic desire in the human make-up that likes it all to be so straight-forward: Angles Vs Devils or Good Vs Evil.

  13. 13 Tim Phillips May 13, 2011 at 5:21 pm

    I like the title of the book.

    But I think the idea of “business angel” reinforces my (Brett’s) point: it’s a feelgood description which perhaps leads would-be entrepreneurs to misunderstand the nature of investors. Maybe we still like to believe in angels, we just think they give us cash these days.

    Though I take your wider point: Ngram is a rough and ready tool, though an interesting one.


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