Fun Link Friday: Losing Time to Books Ngram Viewer

Google Labs introduced a new feature a little while back called the Books Ngram Viewer, which has a lot of interesting potential for a variety of uses (including just plain for fun!). Since I’m no expert in statistics, it’s mostly the fun we’re going to talk about here. The premise of the Viewer is that you enter a word or phrase, and then it displays a graph showing how those phrases have occurred in a corpus of books. You can enter your own parameters for time, too (the standard setting on the homepage provided is 1800-2000). I haven’t had a lot of time to get to know functions intimately, but I’ll briefly outline the process below.

Say you want to get a look at how often the words “sushi,” “ikebana,” and “karaoke” appear. Enter them, separated by commas, and be sure to put in the span of years. I used 1930-2000.

And there you go! It looks like the occurrence of these three words was pretty steady (except karaoke, which didn’t exist yet) until 1980, when suddenly everyone REALLY wanted to talk about sushi. Yum. Then 1990 hit, and the population was ready to talk karaoke. But apparently, no one is going to be getting intense about traditional flower arrangement any time soon.

If you click on the dated options below “Search in Google Books,” you’ll find cited references from which these results came for each of your words. Which is actually pretty darn neat! If you click on 1999 for karaoke, you can find all the books, articles, and magazines Google has recorded with that keyword.

One scholar on the PMJS mailing list playing with this tool brought up how these citations can illustrate certain cultural trends, pointing out that the graph for “netsuke” (Japanese miniature sculptures from the 17th century on) illustrates the great number of museum and art catalogues that published works on them during the “netsuke boom” of the early 20th century.

Although the Books Ngram Viewer is case sensitive, which make skew some results, and I can’t speak to the corpus of books Google is using, this is a really fascinating and fun way to look at trends in published work, whether you’re using everyday words or those that come to us from foreign cultures.

I was pretty excited to put in “shinpai,” but glancing through the citations, “shinpai” also appears to mean a type of license/credentials. I guess everyone wasn’t all “worry” between 1985 and 1992. 🙂 Nevertheless, I’ve lost a lot of time to playing with this new tool, and it’s definitely been fun.

Have fun and happy searching!

Netsuke image from Wikipedia.

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of graduate life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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1 Response to Fun Link Friday: Losing Time to Books Ngram Viewer

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Fun Link Friday: Losing Time to Books Ngram Viewer « What can I do with a B.A. in Japanese Studies? --

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