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Google's massive word database: Fun for the logocentric

December 16, 2010 |  5:18 pm

Love conquers all -- or at least, hate -- if you can judge by the results of Google's massive new word database. The newly launched database contains words and short phrases from 5.2 million digitized books.

That's more than 500 billion words, according to a report in Thursday's New York Times.

Called the Books Ngram Viewer, the massive and powerful search engine allows you to look for words or phrases, and graphs the frequency of their use over time. 

Below the graph, a series of links for time brackets appears -- click on these and you'll be taken to the Google Book Search results page for the books where the word appears. For example, "The Courtiers Manual Oracle or the Art of Prudence," published in 1685, includes both search terms. It advises, "We must neither love, nor hate  for ever. Live to day with thy Friends, as with those who to morrow may be thy worst Enemies."

It's interesting that the project functions at both this micro level -- zooming in to read passages from a book that's more than 300 years old -- and at the macro level, looking at how a word or phrase has moved through our culture over centuries.

It seems, at first go-round, to work best not as a window into a single idea, but as a way of contrasting two or more words. Consider telegraph, postcard, telegram, telephone -- why did phones dip in the early 1960s? Or radio, television, newspaper,  which intersected around 1970 and which now seem to be in a slide toward the newcomer, Internet.

My phrase efforts didn't work -- no "to be or not to be," really? The Atlantic had better luck.

So I decided to try some popularity contests. Take Chaucer and Shakespeare: Chaucer's greatest prominence was in 1800; since 1805, Shakespeare's fortunes have risen over the other writer's. And James Joyce, although his popularity spiked in the early 1960s, has been trading cultural prominence back and forth fairly evenly with Jack Kerouac, whose "On the Road" was published in 1957.

-- Carolyn Kellogg