20 December 2010

Exploring Oz through Google Books Ngram Viewer

As I discussed yesterday, I played a little with the Google Books Ngram Viewer last week. This program graphs the relative frequencies of words and phrases in Google’s growing database of English literature. At this point it seems most useful as a dipstick for measuring the verbal context of a literary work, or its verbal impact.

For example, we may associate the phrase “rags to riches” with Horatio Alger’s novels of a century ago, but that phrase actually flourished after 1925. In Alger’s time “get rich quick” or “strike it rich” were more prevalent.

And what have English speakers called readers in their teens? We can watch the term “teenage” swamp the older phrase “young adult,” with “teenaged” a late arrival.

So what can the Ngram Viewer tell us about L. Frank Baum’s Oz books? I started at the beginning, with the storm that carries Dorothy away from Kansas. Technically it’s a tornado, as Baum acknowledged in a letter after publication. But “Kansas cyclone” was a very familiar phrase back in 1900, perhaps even cliché.

And what do we call Dorothy’s friend Nick Chopper? In Baum’s books, he’s the “Tin Woodman.” The 1939 MGM movie called him the “Tin Man,” and that phrase became much more prevalent in the late 1900s as the movie aired over and over on television. Meanwhile, ”Tin Woodsman,” which has no textual support but sibilants, is also on the rise.

Glinda of Oz introduces three Adepts of Magic. That noun was unfamiliar to me when I first read the book, and I was interested to read later that Baum borrowed it from theosophical usage. The Ngram Viewer shows how the popularity of the capitalized “Adepts” spiked around 1880 and hit a second high around 1920, the year that book was published (after Baum’s death).

I was surprised to see a recent sudden spike in the use of the word “Ozma.” Because of the musical performers who use the name? Because of Project Ozma? Knowing more about Google’s sample might explain that.

Finally, I used the Ngram Viewer to graph the frequency of three phrases:

  • “no place like home,” which Baum borrowed from John Howard Payne, as I discussed back here. It was near the peak of its popularity around 1900, when Baum wrote.
  • “Munchkin,” Baum’s own coinage, which has entered our language for something small. It had a burst of usage a century ago, and has been growing more common since 1970.
  • And, as a comparison, “Muggle,” which has been around for decades but achieved new heights after J. K. Rowling used it in her Harry Potter books.

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