Corpus reviver: Google unveils a new tool for looking at language


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Put a word on it
  • sacks08
  • Put a word on it
A couple weeks ago Google relaunched a new and improved Ngram Viewer, one weapon in the arsenal the company keeps in its struggle toward world information domination. The Ngram Viewer—no relation to the enneagram—is a tool that sorts the corpus of Google Books on a word-by-word basis and then graphs it out for you, allowing you to track over time the usage of a particular word or phrase. Version 2.0 has smoothed out some wrinkles and added a couple new features, like the ability to differentiate words based on their function—between nouns and verbs, for instance. Recently the linguist Ben Zimmer explained the new version.

If you're analytically inclined—say if you're Nate Silver, or Whet Moser—you can do productive, interesting things, oriented toward the advancement of human knowledge, with a tool like the Ngram Viewer. If you're me, you can at least entertain yourself for a couple minutes.

Like if you consider what a great word corpus is, and compare it to similar words (click the images below to blow them up):

Words that begin with corp-
  • Words that begin with corp-

Or just enter some random names of months, to gauge their popularity over time:

July, September, December
  • July, September, December

July was really hot in the 60s.

As I mentioned, the new Ngram Viewer also allows you to sort words by how they're used as parts of speech: whether, for instance, you're using crap like a British person—i.e., as an adjective—or, like a patriot, as a noun. In certain cases this tests the limit of the application: will friend be found as a verb? (I didn't try defriend.)

Friend: noun vs. verb
  • Friend: noun vs. verb

It will not. But if you're that committed to depressing yourself by the way that tech- and corporatespeak are degrading the English language, try tracking the progress of three of the emptiest grammatical constructions known to man: reach out, circle back, and going forward.

Reach out and touch somebody
  • Reach out and touch somebody

Like Barack Obama and the Electoral College, reach out retains the edge by a wide margin, and you'll notice that going forward was long on the decline. It's making its way back, though, in offices throughout the country. Don't say I didn't warn you.


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