Google Labs has an interesting tool posted on their Web site. It’s called Ngrams. If you follow the link, you’ll find a page waiting for a word or words to be input. Some guys put this tool together, using a database composed of the words from over 5 million digitized books in the Google library.
The chart on the page displays a usage graph of the words that you input and search for. In other words, it displays the frequency of usage of particular words in 5 million plus books. You can try any words you like. Being a guy, I started with four letter words, the first of which was the F bomb. That turned out to provide one of the most curious results of any subsequent words I tried. As it turns out, that word was commonly found in print in the early 1800s only to fall out of usage completely until about 1960, when it popped back onto the scene and made a dynamic rise in appearance (with only a minor dip in about 1982) up to the present.
We should consider the fact that words in print don’t necessarily reflect the usage of words on the street. F bombs might have been commonly heard in public. That word, like many others, was taboo on a printed page for many years until recent decades when authors became less reluctant to abide by standards established in the Victorian Age.
Many other vulgar words have interesting outputs also. “Turd” is a case in point. That word, too, is on the rise and is reaching dizzying heights in recent years. After pumping in all the naughty words I could think of, I finally starting inputting other words. It’s pretty easy to understand the big swings in usage of particular words. “Scan” is an example. That word had very limited usage through most of the study period (1800 to 1960) but then its usage dramatically increased and has been rising ever since. “Blog” offers a strange result, and I can think of no reasonable explanation for it. Try it.
“Juke” is a good word to check. It has almost no usage before the late 1930s, then its usage rises suddenly until about 1950, then it declines gradually until about 1980, then it levels out. I imagine that the high appearance of the word in the late 30s and a few decades after was because of the term “juke box” and the ubiquitous presence of those devices throughout US society. As far as its present frequency goes, my guess is that it’s more related to its use in sports to describe a player faking out another player.
That brings to mind another factor at work here. Word meanings change through the years. For example, the word “fabulous” has an interesting print history. It shows fairly substance usage throughout the study period. I believe, however, that the usage of the past few decades has been due to an increasing trend to resort to hyperbole when describing things. The word’s use in the past might have been more related to one meaning of the word that we seldom hear any more: something that is almost impossible to believe. “I had a fabulous vacation.” That means I had a very good vacation. If you tell me something and I say “fabulous,” it means I think it’s really cool, not that I don’t believe you.
Ngrams is fun. Check it out. Just remember that the results should be interpreted with a bit of common sense.