The Historical Use Of Words

One of the most interesting TED Talks is this one about data mining from Google Books:

Here is the website they mention for running your own searches:

As someone who studies the Civil War (and in light of racism being a current events topic), I decided to check the history of a certain racial slur beginning with the letter N.

Even though black slavery existed in the American colonies since 1619, the N-word doesn’t make a noticeable appearance until around 1820 and had a peak around 1836. There was a a sharp increase from 1848 to 1854 and a peak in 1863 during the Civil War (which of course had nothing to do with slavery some say) then plummeted until 1873 (i.e. the height of Reconstruction). It rose steadily to a sustained peak in the 1930s (Great Depression = racism?) only to fall in the the late 1950s to its lowest usage since Reconstruction. It hit an all time high in the late 1960s, another low in the 1980s, and is currently at its highest point since the 1970s (which is also its fourth highest peak – after the 1860s, 1930s, and 1960s).

“Negro” has always had a significantly higher usage. There are some expected peaks during the Civil War and late 1960s like the N-word. Interestingly, Negro doesn’t peak in the 1930s like its counterpart, but does peak in the mid-1940s – a connection to the segregated units in World War II? Curiously, there’s also a sustained peak roughly 1755-1763 – what did the Seven Years War have to do with blacks? Interestingly, it saw a massive decline in use during the 1970s and early 1980s, leveling off around the time “African-American” started showing up. Curiously, “African-American” still shows up far less than “Negro”.

Let’s look at politics. “Libertarian” basically wasn’t a thing until the 1950s. “Conservative” and “Liberal” both had an all-time high in the late 1960s. “Conservative” was rarely used before the 1820s and saw a slow rise after that. “Liberal” has had regular use much longer. It had a pretty substantial increase in use during the 1770s, which suggests our Founding Fathers certainly thought of themselves as Liberals (in the context of their time).
“Progressive” has been used back to the 1700s. It’s use has remained somewhat steady over time. Communist/Communist and Socialist/Socialism (the adjectives are were used much more than their noun counterparts) were more talked about starting in the 1930s. Interestingly, communist peaked in the early 1960s but socialist not until the 1970s. Communist has gotten more use than socialist since the start of the Cold War.
“liberal media” (no caps) came into use in the late 1960s, but “Liberal Media” not until the 1990s.
“Conspiracy” is mentioned much less in the 20th century than in the 19th, 18th, or 17th. “Conspiracy theory” has been on a steady rise since it became a thing in the 1950s.
If we judge by the word “sex” alone, the prudish Victorian Era lasted most of the 1800s. It’s been written about like never before since the 1960s.
Cocaine was a more popular topic 1890-1918 than it was again until the 1980s. Maybe there is some merit to that idea that World War I happened because too many people were coked out of their minds?
The devil was the subject of much writing in the 1620s and 1690s, but satan got the attention in the 1640s. Along with lucifer, they’ve been much less talked about since 1700. Interestingly, their lowest point of discussion was roughly 1950-2005; they’ve been making a comeback in the last decade. The anti-Christ gets talked about far less and still isn’t anywhere near his peak of discussion in the 1720s.

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