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Friday, December 17, 2010

Coolest Thing EVER

Nobody talked much about solipsists before the late-19th century. OK, presumably we were talking about ourselves, but we didn't get much play in the wider world. The highwater mark of solipsism's literary popularity apparently came in 1996: In that year, about 1/20,000 of one percent of the words used in books was "solipsism." Why this sudden popularity? Could it have something to do with America's highly popular, solipsistic commander-in-chief? (OK, Clinton was technically more of a narcissist, but there's a definite relationship?) And what explains the fact that, while "solipsism" trended up, "solipsist" trended down? A sign of people's preference for abstraction over individuals?

We can muse upon these questions thanks to Google's new "Books Ngram Viewer." Basically, this tool allows you to search through thousands upon thousands of digitized texts to see how often words or short phrases appear. It's a sort of concordance for the electronic age. ("Concordance," incidentally, has had a sort of up-and-down history. Its usage spikes around 1670 and then again about a hundred years later, before dipping into a trough from which it arose again around 1970. It had maintained its status since then--no stopping "concordance" now.)

Another fun fact: a little under 5% of the words used in Google's sample are the word "the." If we read this correctly, this means that if one reads twenty words, there's a good chance that one of those words is "the." Also, this 5% total (which is pretty huge if you think about it) is down from a high of about 6% in the mid-19th century. Why has "the" fallen into disfavor over the last 150 years? And why has the fall-off been less drastic in British books than in American? (Yup, you can look at that, too.)

We prefer Pepsi to Coke, but the latter is about 15 times more common than the former. And since 1977, when "Star Wars" hit theaters, the movie has been a steady topic--or, maybe not: The phrase reached its zenith in the late 1980s, when it occurs once every million words or so, but we suspect that may have something to do with President Reagan's plans for missile defense. As of 2008, though, the phrase was only slightly more common than "Star Trek"--and the latter doesn't even have geopolitical implications. (Also, "Star Wars" is more popular than "Star Trek" in French literature, but the numbers are reversed for Germans. Discuss.)


  1. Just to comment on two of your points: The use of the "the" word: The PERCENTAGE is down because there are somany more words being published nowadays as there was in those bygone. Surely you didn't fall prey to the most obvious error of comparing PERCENTAGE withreal numbers ("Children who eat peanut butter are TWICE as likely to be hit by cars!" This means that while one out of ten thousand kids who don't eat PB have been hit by cars, two out of ten thousand kids who do, were). Second comment: To use "Star Wras" OR "Star Trek" in any sentence that includes the word "literature"
    is ludicrous... and I LIKE them!

  2. Actually, no. The point IS that the percentage is down: Percentage is the ONLY meaningful measurement in this case. Given the fact that, as you note, the TOTAL number of words has increased, the absolute number of instances of 'the' has almost surely increased over time. What the decreased percentage suggests is that "the" has not kept pace with the general increase in total words. Interesting, especially when one considers how common 'the' is. And although a 1% drop doesn't seem all that large, in a total sample of some 500 billion words, this seems statistically significant.