My love affair with Google’s Ngram viewer began when I was drafting “The Apprentice’s Magician” and threw down the phrase “exit strategy.” Immediately I stopped, doubting that the phrase was used in the 1930s. But how to find out?
Happily there’s a tool that helps: Google’s Ngram Viewer. The viewer generates graphs of the frequency of words in the texts that comprise Google Books over time. So punch in “pizza” and here’s what you get:
The viewer accounts for the fact that many more books have been published in recent decades, and normalizes the results by the number of books published each year. Which means the results reflect how popular or not a word or phrase was at a certain time, not simply how often it was printed.
But what about more everyday terms? In the mid-1930s was it more common to say pants or trousers, for example? I feel like trousers might have been the thing, but I don’t know. The Ngram viewer can chart multiple words or phrases together for comparison. Because the Mabel Brightwing series is set in the mid-1930s in New York, I narrowed the search parameters to 1900-1950, and only American English.
Ah ha, throughout the early 20th Century, trousers led pants. There’s an interesting dip in both terms starting around 1945. Why? This is where I get pulled down the rabbit hole. Maybe jeans started to take over? Let’s add that, pull out to the whole century, and see what we get.
Well, there’s still no obvious explanation for the mysterious reluctance to talk about pants, trousers, or leg wear in any form from the late ’40s to the late ’60s, but we can see that right around 1969 pants took over from trousers, with jeans also on the rise.
The viewer can also chart phrases (and a lot more—see the About page for all the mathy-lingustic details). At one point in “The Flight of the TKTK” I had a character say “four-legged friend,” but I became seized with uncertainty. Did Americans say that in 1936? How much?
Turns out they did, but very rarely. I noodled around for alternatives, and hit upon the sexist “man’s best friend.” Let’s take a look:
Yup, that unfortunate phrase appeared about ten times more often in the early 20th, and charged up even more starting around 1935. I went with it because the character who utters it is a product of his times, and an unenlightened product at that.
So back to “exit strategy,” were my instincts right? They certainly were:
It strikes me that a talented programmer could use the Ngram viewer’s database to create an Anachronism Detector. Feed it a piece of historical fiction, give it a year or date range, and the program could chew through the document and highlight words and phrases that don’t belong. Seems like a good project for some Googler’s 20% time, although that itself may be a myth. This article sheds a little light there.