A Hidden Empire: Using Google Ngram to Track American Descriptions of United States Imperialism

Is the United States an empire? Most of us don’t think of it as one but historian Daniel Immerwahr argues otherwise. In his book, How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, Immerwahr studies how the United States has been expanding since the very beginning- stretching from the original thirteen eastern states across the North American Continent- and eventually began claiming overseas colonies. Essential to the creation of this empire, however, was the perception that United States is not an empire. So, how does America talk about the American Empire while keeping Americans, well, clueless?

Cher Horowitz, Clueless

I propose a project which utilizes Google Ngram to track the ways which Americans have talked about American Imperialism over time, inspired by Immerwahr’s work. For this study, I want to focus on terms that relate to how Americans have described the American Empire and how that has changed over time. Part of Immerwahr’s argument rests on the terminology that our government’s leadership has used to talk about United States territories overseas– terms like commonwealth, protectorate, territory, and colony.

Googe Ngram graph shows a sharp decrease in usage of the term “American Colonies”
A search of “American Empire” shows a similar decline in usage, but with a significant rebound at the end of the 20th century.

Preliminary searches of the terms “American Colonies” and “American Empire” show similar declines in usage of the term beginning in about 1820. While “American Empire” experiences a rebound in usage, this change is not significant until the end of the 1900s and into the 2000s. This trend makes one wonder: why were Americans less likely to describe the United States as an Empire after the early years of the republic? Why were Americans less likely to call newly acquired land colonies?

Google Ngram showing use of “American Territory” spiking in about 1900, when “American Colony” is at one of it’s lowest points.

Things start to get a little more interesting when testing out other descriptions of non-state acquisitions of the United States. For example, usage of “American Territory” sees a sharp increase at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century, correlating roughly with the end of the Spanish-American War and the World Wars, conflicts in which the United States gained, or had the potential to gain, significant territories. While “American Empire” does see a small bump during this period, both “American Empire” and “American Colonies” continue on the decline, despite territorial acquisition.

A continuation of this project would seek to use a variety of search terms to get an accurate vision of how the American Empire is described throughout time. Examples of other search terms would be substituting “United States” for “American,” and other synonyms for “colony,” like “protectorate,” “commonwealth,” “dependency,” and “settlement.” While Grant Immerwahr’s research also look towards US overseas military bases as evidence, I have doubts that using terms for military bases would yield effective results in this case.

I plan on primarily using Google Ngram for this project, but I am open to other platforms or tool which might yield better results. I would be interested in searching newspapers on this topics, but I am unsure of how to effectively do that for a semester-long project.

Understanding the language that is used to describe American Imperialism is important. While America is viewed as a beacon of freedom, there are American territories so seek freedom from the United States, or statehood at the very least. The people in the American territories lack the rights afforded to mainland American citizens, even though they live on American territory. Understanding the language used is an essential step to recognizing and acting against the unjust actions of our government. The American people shouldn’t be clueless to the fact that the United States controls more than just the 50 states.

2 Replies to “A Hidden Empire: Using Google Ngram to Track American Descriptions of United States Imperialism”

  1. Emily, I really think this is an interesting proposal. Language is so important in historical research — and it seems as though there are endless different words and phrases you could study within this.

    Also — my favorite movie is Clueless and I loved your inclusion of it!!

  2. This is a really fantastic project concept. I really appreciate how you’ve grounded the idea in existing literature from Immerwahr and the initial work you have already done to identify the usage of the terms over time. It strikes me that as you identify the trends in these terms that you can then really start to dive into the points in time in the chart and look a bit at how the terms have been used at specific points. That way you can do that nuanced back and forth between the distant reading and close reading.

    It strikes me that it may also be interesting to look at some of these in relation to related notions like “manifest destiny” and turner’s “frontier thesis” and the “Monroe Doctrine.”

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