Getting (a little) technical: NGrams

Thanks for Colin on Literary Taste for drawing my attention to the Google’s neat little NGram tool. I was immediately fascinated!

But what, you may ask, is an NGram? It is a technical term, usually used in computational linguistics, for a sequence of letters of any length.

The Google Ngram Viewer is something more specific: ‘a phrase-usage graphing tool which charts the yearly count of selected n-grams (letter combinations) or words and phrases, as found in over 5.2 million books digitized by Google Inc (up to 2008)’. (Thanks Wikipedia.)

In simple terms it gives you a graph showing how often a word or phrase has been used over time. There’s a good description by the University of Buffalo library here.

I entered the term ‘middlebrow’:

NGram Middlebrow

This confirms what we knew: that the term started to be used in the late 1920s. It also appears to confirm what I thought when I studied the novelist Elizabeth Taylor’s reception – that the term was used more after World War II than before.

Of course, the NGram Viewer has its limitations. Click on ‘Search in Google Books’ and Google will show you the books that form the source data. 5.2 million books digitized sounds great – and it is – but it isn’t everything, and it is skewed towards US publications. The leap in appearances of ‘middlebrow’ in the 1950s comes particularly from these American publications, such as Russell Lynes’ The Tastemakers. Though, this too, confirms the research that suggested that the ‘middlebrow’ debate really took off in the 1950s in the US, well after the interwar period, when in the UK people such as J B Priestley and Virginia Woolf were doing their arguing.

A graph of frequency does not of course tell you anything about how a term was used and what meaning was attached to it – but still, I say, how interesting! I will be returning to NGram. You can plot multiple terms and thus look for correlations… Have you used the NGram viewer? Any interesting results?

Having opened this question up, I’m now going off on my holidays to Vancouver and will be without all technical devices until the 10th June. Instead I will be carrying lots of heavy books! Perhaps time to get a Kindle?

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4 thoughts on “Getting (a little) technical: NGrams

  1. Pingback: Ngrams « Great War Fiction

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