Word nerds unite

Note: This article appeared in the December  5 edition of the Berthoud Weekly Surveyor


The advent of the internet, computers and smart phones all of us now allow us to waste time in ways we never imagined.

No one knows for sure how many people are playing Angry Birds, Candy Crush, Words with Friends, etc. any given time.

Well, here is a new suggestion on something to do on the computer, and this one has at least a smattering of education embedded in it.

The activity I am talking about is the N-graph. Find the Google N-gram Viewer at books.google.com/ngrams.

The heart of the Google N-gram Viewer software is a database of more than 5.2 digitized books published between the years 1800 to 2008. These more than five million books contain about five billion words.

By entering a word or words, the users sees a line graph depicting the rise and/or fall of the popularity and usage of words.

For example, enter the words “cell phone.” Immediately, you see a graph showing a steep rise in the use of the word starting in about 1995

Upon entering the N-gram screen, the default date range shows the years 1800 to 2000. Customize this span of time depending on your search. Just enter a different start or end date. For the term cell phone, I moved the start date up to the 1970s to get a more detailed graph.

But wait, there’s more. Not only can you enter one word in the search box, you can do two or three words simultaneous to see them compared side by side on the graph.

One example that I tried were the words “football” and “soccer”. The graph shows that the term football starts to rise in popularity back in the 1880s. Soccer, on the other hand, doesn’t have much activity until the 1920s.

Next, I tried the words “nursery” and “child care.” Nursery, the older of the two words has been around forever, it seems. We didn’t start using the words child care until 1920. In about 1994, child care overtook nursery as the most widely used word.

But wait, there is even more. In the English language, the same word can be a verb or a noun. The N-graph can handle this too. Just enter a word followed by _NOUN or _VERB. I did this with the work” tackle”, and got some interesting results.

Also, if the word warrants it, case sensitivity options work too.

This handy tool has some other refinements that word nerds may like. But I think I have wasted enough time.


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