Words, Words and More Words Throughout Time

Hi everyone, this week I’ll be walking us through two digital resources relating to the use of words throughout time; The Time Magazine Corpus of American English and Google n-gram. These are both services that attempt to locate the use of certain words or strings of words throughout different time periods. I’ll be honest, I had never experienced resources such as these before and they were a bit intimidating at first but stick with me, with a little experimentation these tools are really interesting!

The first resource I’d like to demonstrate is the Time Magazine Corpus of American English.

To start off I wanted to provide the definition of the word corpus, as it’s important to understand the function of the tool. ‘Corpus’ is defined as “a collection of written texts, especially the entire works of a particular author or a body of writing on a particular subject.” The Time Magazine Corpus therefore provides users the opportunity to search for a specific word throughout the collection of Time Magazine articles from 1923-2006. This is a great tool for any historian looking to contextualize a specific word within this time period or examine how use of a word has changed or varied over time. 

For the purpose of this demonstration I chose the word ‘groovy’. Searching the word groovy produces a timeline by decade that shows the frequency of the use of the word in Time Magazine articles. This shows that the first time the word ‘groovy’ was used in a Time Magazine was in the 1940s, with the decade of most use being the 1960s. 

By clicking on the number below the decade, a list appears that shows you the date of the time Magazine article publication and the sentence that the word was used in. Here you can see ‘groovy’ was used in an article from August 25, 1948 and was used in reference to students and nuns, however that doesn’t tell us all about the context of the use of the word. By selecting the date you can see more information. 

This provides you with a paragraph of context and more information about the article, including the title and a link. Unfortunately the links no longer appear to be correct, so if you wish to find the article in question you may need to search by title and publication date instead. 

The next resource is the Google n-gram search tool. 

Google n-gram allows users to search one or multiple terms and see the frequency of use in books over time. Unlike the Time Magazine Corpus, which displays data in list form, Google n-gram shows data in a visual graph. This helps for visual interpretation, but it is important for users to pay attention to the scale set by the x-axis, otherwise data may be taken out of context. 

Sticking with the term ‘groovy’ a graph is produced that shows how the frequency of the term in published books has varied, as well as an option to search in google books. 

Unlike the Time Magazine Corpus (which again only searched Time Magazine articles), this tool suggests that ‘groovy’ was used in published books beginning in the 1840s and spiked in the 2010s. 

By clicking the time period you can then switch to a search of the term in Google books, with the option to refine the time period further. This shows the research potential sources for further examination on the use of the term. 

Another option is to search multiple terms, which can be done by typing multiple terms separated by only a comma in the search bar. For example, I searched ‘groovy,disco’ to see how the two terms related to each other through use over time. Again, it’s important for researchers to pay attention to the x-axis, which has changed from our first term search, since the term disco appears more frequently throughout all published works. This is a great option for users who want to see how words relate to each other and vary over time. 

Both of these options are wonderful research tools for historians interested in the use of the English language. They both offer advanced search functions for those who wish to use them, I just demonstrated basic functions here. Let me know if you have any question or ideas how you might use these tools in your future research, I’d love to hear!

3 Replies to “Words, Words and More Words Throughout Time”

  1. Rosie, what a great post! I’d be interested in using this tool to track how often figures are mentioned in books. For example, tracking the use of Martin Luther King Jr. in writing versus Malcolm X and seeing the different ways that authors have written about them. I think it could be an interesting way to inspect cultural change in social history, cultural history or community history. What do you think? Would the tool would work well for that?

  2. Hi Shae! I definitely think these would be interesting tools for that. I think that the Time Magazine Corpus tool would be useful for understanding how Time reported on the two figures, and potentially lead to primary source material you could examine. I think Google n-gram is a great tool for historiography in that sense. For example, when I looked up ‘disco’ I was thinking the most hits would be in the 1960s and 1970s, but really it was in the 2000s and 2010s. Its my guess that upon further research these years are when there was a boom in secondary sources written about disco.

  3. Hi Rosie! I think google ngrams can also be useful to track (and perhaps define) periods in time, especially when used in conjunction with the google books search. My mind went immediately to the debate surrounding the establishment of “social history” within the field and how using a google ngram search can more accurately relay the time frame key-terms were used in the literature. I wonder what other time periods can be deduced from this tool? Maybe even conversations regarding digital history and digital humanities?

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