weekend distraction ii: google’s word history tool

This weekend everyone's playing with Google's new Books Ngram tool, which shows you how often any word you can think of showed up in books in each year of modern history, using Google's vast archive of digitized books.  The tool can be set to look back to before 1600, but before 1800 or so the dataset is too small to mean much.

"Tram" vs "streetcar" is interesting.  It seems that in the golden age of streetcars nobody was saying "streetcar" yet:

Ngram tram streetcar

Then there's "bus" vs. "coach."

Ngram bus coach

Personally I love the word "coach," and want it back, but I'm sure that the word's 20th century run refers mostly to athletic coaches.  

You can sometimes see a change in the prevailing meaning of a word marked by a low-point in its frequency, and that may be happening to "coach" around 1920.  (For an obvious recent example of the same phenomenon, see "gay.")  Words go quiet for a while as nobody's sure what they mean anymore.  Then people get sure, and they take off. 

Few transit terms are easy to search, because the profession's vocabulary is constructed metaphorically, so almost every word we use has a more common meaning outside the transit context.  But "city" and "town" are fascinating:

Ngram city town

"City" has lost about half of its frequency in the last century.  In the 19th Century, novels that took place in cities made sure you notice the fact, often dwelling on the confronting textures of city life.  Cities and country are in clear opposition, and as the Industrial Revolution rages everyone's worrying over the contrast between them.  The city is emerging as one of the main problems of civilization. 

Then in the 20th century we get the rise of subjectivity — the idea that stories don't really need settings if the personalities are vivid enough — and also the rise of specialization, which means that stuff that happens in cities is less likely to credit the city as a necessary frame.  And that, of course, sets the stage for the flight to suburbia and the possibility of no longer caring what a city is.  But starting around 1960 there's the beginning of something new.

Of course, some of the decline in "city" matches the rise of "urban," which dances closely with "rural."

Ngram urban rural

"Urban" rises as "city" declines.  Before the "urban" was invented (followed not long after by "urbanism") everyone just talked about the city. 

Have fun!  Did you know that the word "interchange" has been in decline since 1963?  Me neither!

5 Responses to weekend distraction ii: google’s word history tool

  1. Aaron Priven December 18, 2010 at 7:36 am #

    A search for “tram,streetcar,trolley” shows trolley with nothing until a sudden rise in 1890 to a very high peak in 1915 or so (about twice as high as the highest peak for “tram”). Then it falls pretty rapidly — dipping under “tram” briefly around 1930, then rising again to be at just above the same level as “tram” from 1940 to 2000.

  2. Hamilton Transit History December 18, 2010 at 8:38 am #

    From what I’ve read, originally it was spelled ‘street car’, or more simply ‘car’ it then became ‘electric street car’ or ‘electric car’ It wasn’t until ‘car’ became synonymous with ‘automobile’ that the word ‘streetcar’ really appeared.

  3. Cap'n Transit December 18, 2010 at 8:47 am #

    I found that tramway, interurban, streetcar, freeway all peaked at about 0.0002%.

  4. Tessa December 18, 2010 at 2:02 pm #

    I think the train and car search is quite interesting: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=train%2Ccar&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3
    As is when I searched King and Queen, though not transit related, with king going way out of style over the last 200 years. =)
    Thanks for the link. It’s a neat tool.

  5. Bob Davis December 19, 2010 at 9:30 pm #

    I was intrigued by the apparent scarcity of “streetcar” uses before 1940. I noticed that “tram” was more widely used, I would presume that most of the books it was found in were British (or in British-influenced areas such as Australia). Here in the US the term “trolley” or “trolley car” was more common. My mother was from Massachusetts and she referred to the large suburban/interurban cars that passed our home on the Pacific Electric line as “streetcars”. There’s also the thought that things that were part of everyday life might not be mentioned in books as much as they would be in casual speech.