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Fun with N-Gram

August 14, 2013

A couple of years ago I mentioned the “n-gram” facility available from Google that allows one to search for usage of words or phrases in all the books digitized by Google (to date, ca. 5.2 million) diachronically from ca. 1800 to 2008.  In the last week or so, as I’ve been preparing a plenary lecture for this year’s annual meeting of the British NT Society (Univ of St. Andrews, 29-31 Aug), I’ve had great fun using N-Gram to plot the usage of certain terms.  The facility allows you to see when a given term/expression emerges, and thereafter how frequently it appears, and when/whether it grows or declines in usage across time.

You can actually spend far too much time playing with the facility, but it can be put to serious use.  I had fun, for example, tracing appearance and use of terms such as “monotheism,” “biblical criticism,” “christological monotheism,” “redaction criticism,” and others.

Results are produced on a line-graph, decade by decade, and you can ask for different degrees of “smoothing”.  It’s case-sensitive, and so it’s interesting to compare, e.g., “Biblical Theology” with “biblical theology”.

It’s particularly good for identifying fashions in word-usage, and so fashions in academic pursuits.  I’ll give some examples in my lecture.  But mum’s the word for now!

You can read more about N-Gram in the Wikepedia entry here.

You can try out N-Gram here.  There is a detailed set of instructions for conducting rather sophisticated searches.

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4 Comments
  1. It’s also fun typing in fashionable obscurantisms (e.g. “transformative”) and watching a take-off from near-zero in the late 1960s and continuing ever since.

  2. samtsang98 permalink

    This is really good. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Lorenzo permalink

    Amazing! I have tried a search with “historical Jesus”.. Maybe I’m extrapolating too much from the data, but I think that in the plotted trend you can actually see the peaks for the first, second and third “quest” for historical Jesus!
    There is also a rather “flat” period between the first and the second quest – which is actually known as “no quest” period… What you think? The link here:
    http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=historical+Jesus&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=

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