A couple of years ago, my graduate school financial support was working at the Center for Statistical Consultation and Research (CSCAR) at the Univ. of Michigan. In that time, it was fascinating to see that English departments had caught up with the world and started taking advantage of our now vast computing resources to mine thousands of years worth of written work. Researchers can now get amazing insights into the development of language, cultural trends and the evolution of social attitudes and historical change.
Google Books has managed to digitize nearly 11% of all the world’s written work. Assuming that World War III doesn’t break out and decimate the world wide web and that which powers it, they might be able to get to at least 50% by the end of my lifetime. Fortunately, they’ve put all their scanned text into a database and made it publicly available.
The Ngram Viewer tracks the percentage of times a word or word sequence is mentioned relative to the entire body of scanned literature.
I just spent five minutes playing with it, and found that, God was really big in the 16th and 17th centuries, but His almighty popularity has waned. Now, the all powerful deity must compete with “War”. God and war still outpace science in the English language press, but we appear to be gaining ground against sex! Belief in fantasy figures and killing far outpaces procreation and rational thought. Josef Stalin and Santa Claus beat Hugh Hefner and Darwin.