Fun with Google Ngrams

January 21, 2011
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There’s this thing Google have put together which is really addictive. It’s called Ngrams. Essentially, when you enter phrases into the Google Books Ngram Viewer, it displays a graph showing how those phrases have occurred in a corpus of books. You can set various parametres of time, which types/language of books are searched and so on. The graphic results are very cool.

For example, instances of the words horse (blue), bicycle (red), car (green) and motorcycle (yellow), between 1800 and 2008, in English:

horse bicycle car motorcycle 300x141 Fun with Google Ngrams

(click for larger images)

Pretty cool, huh. So naturally I started searching all kinds of comparisons. Regular readers here will know I’m fascinated with religious mythology, so I did a search on instances of Christian (blue), Muslim (red), Jew (green), Hindu (yellow) and Buddhist (blue), again from 1800 to 2008 in English. Look at the massive decline in Christianity’s dominance over the written word in that time.

christian muslim jew hindu buddhist 300x144 Fun with Google Ngrams

On that front, what about instances of heaven (blue) and hell (red):

heaven hell 300x146 Fun with Google Ngrams

Hell holding steady while heaven sees a steep decline. This amuses me.

All right, enough of this nonsense, let’s get onto the serious stuff. Between 1800 and 2008, let’s look at instances of fantasy (blue), science fiction (red) and horror (green):

fantasy scifi horror 300x141 Fun with Google Ngrams

Sci-fi doesn’t register until around 1950, fantasy has a slow growth right through, really peaking in the last thirty or forty years and horror saw a steady decline until a resurgence around 1980. I imagine that’s largely down to the pulp horror revival of the 80s and the emergence of superstars in the genre like Stephen King and James Herbert.

So the natural progression from there is to see which is really the most popular when it comes to the big three supernaturals. Here we have vampire (blue), werewolf (red) and zombie (green):

vampire werewolf zombie 300x145 Fun with Google Ngrams

Relatively even, though vampires clearly more popular, till around the early 80s, then the vamps went nuts. Anne Rice, Lost Boys and the like are clearly marked there.

But that was an easy one – of course the vampire is the most popular, as it is the coolest. Though I predict the werewolf has yet to really see its heyday. But now let’s sort out once and for all the ongoing rivalry that all SF fans get heated about. I should start by saying that I’m a big fan of both. But what says Ngrams in the great Star Wars (blue) vs Star Trek (red), in English since 1960:

starwars startrek1 300x143 Fun with Google Ngrams

Jedis FTW!

Man, I could play with this thing all day.

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5 Responses to Fun with Google Ngrams

  1. alan on January 21, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    By the way, with regard to the Star Wars vs Star Trek thing, I’m aware that Star Wars was a much bandied political phrase in the 80s. This is just a bit of fun, folks!

  2. Red Bakersen on January 21, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    “Hell holding steady…”
    Always and forever. :)

  3. Michael on January 21, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    I wouldn’t put too much stock into the change between the 1800s and now, there are lots of other factors.

    Eg: the decline of Christianity, this could be that Christian was a synonym for “good”. Of course that’s significant in itself but it probably does not indicate a decline in religious or Christian texts.

    Similarly, you can come up with plausible explanations for heaven/hell not involving religion — for hell I think its use in expressions (what the hell) is what contributes to its significance.

    Heaven though, that’s a sign Christianity’s in trouble.

    Now this one is interesting, looks like John was wrong: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=beatles%2Cjesus&year_start=1900&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

  4. alan on January 21, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    I think you’re right about hell, but the Christianity thing is more likely due to the fact that there’s a lot of books about other stuff now, where before a lot of literature and art was heavily Christian based. There are way too many mitigating factors to really put any stock in these things beyond the purely entertaining. But that Beatles/Jesus one – that’s hilarious!

  5. EJ Wesley on January 22, 2011 at 1:33 am

    That blew my mind! I may never stop …

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