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Google has taken on plenty of ambitious projects over the past decade, perhaps none more so than Google Books: the internet giant has so far managed to scan more than 5 million books into digital format. This has – for obvious reasons – generated much controversy regarding copyright and other aspects. Though it has bewildered me for a number of years how most people haven’t understood the positive side of this incredible undertaking – basically making the corpus of all printed literature keyword searchable! Forget the old days of searching your local library for a title using the Dewey Decimal system – you can now search a mega-libary instantaneously for a particular keyword anywhere within the book…and then buy or download the book immediately.

Anyhow, recently Google have made a new tool available to search the Google Books database – the Ngram Viewer – which allows tracking of the use of particular words throughout history in published material. It’s quite a bit of fun to use, and rather illuminating as well in various ways. As a simple example, and one that I’m sure nobody would doubt too much – usage of the word “vampire” over the last few hundred years, leading up to the modern fixation with this horror archetype:

But it’s interesting to find out that other terms were, surprisingly, not written about much until modern times (or perhaps, were discussed via different terminology). For example, “afterlife”:

Afterlife Ngram

Another interesting exercise is to compare terms. Say for example that we wanted to see the most common spelling of the word describing the field of UFO studies, which tends to always end in disputes – ufology, UFOlogy, or Ufology. Google’s Ngram Viewer shows that though it started out as “UFOlogy”, since the 1970s “ufology” has become the most used term – though in recent years its usage has fallen off with the variant spellings closing the gap:

Ufology Ngram

Lots of other fun to be had, so head on over and get to it – and report back on any intriguing results in the comments! Science vs religion is particularly illuminating – try plugging in other terms like “Great Pyramid“, “Illuminati“, and “LSD” to find intriguing spikes during certain decades which point to historical moments and discoveries. Remember to vary your time frames as needed, and be careful how you enter words as they are case sensitive.