Google Ngram Viewer

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Have you ever had the sense that some term or word which we take for granted might have come into popular use very recently? Or perhaps you wonder if popular usage of some descriptor might have waxed and waned over time? If you’d looking for a quick way to visualise this as data, check out Google’s NGram viewer. If you haven’t already spent time using google books, then I’d recommend you start there. They’ve become a digitizing juggernaut, sometimes in cooperation with University libraries in an effort to create what they describe as “the world’s most comprehensive index of full-text books.” And honestly, they’re probably right.

Having millions of digitized books available is an absolute dream for big data folks such as myself, and Google has been accommodating to people wanting to run research on the database. This can be quite sophisticated, but you can also use NGram viewer for more basic searches. Head on over to the site to check it out for yourself: There are a few basic functions – you can narrow the search field (which defaults to 1800-2000) and specify the language. You can also run comparative searches on several words, just separate them with commas. Give it a whirl – and let me know in the comments what strange discoveries you make!

I tried a quick search on the much contested term “sustainability” and confirmed that it is indeed a word that no one really bothered using before 1980. There you go.


If you want to go really wild, Google makes all their data available through an API. I have in mind to spend some more time working with this tool on my next project which will look at the early (pre-1920) history of environmentalism in Britain and America. Stay tuned for more charts!


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