19 December 2010

Weekly Robin Ngram Viewer

Like a lot of other researchers, I put in a little too much time with Google’s new Books Ngram Viewer this week. It allows one to search Google’s entire corpus of digitized English literature to see how the relative frequencies of published words or phrases change over time.

I learned how the programming is case-sensitive, hates hyphens and other forms of punctuation, and makes graphs with familiar colors.

I’m sure there are still bugs in the database. Look at the blip in mentions of “Bruce Wayne” and “Dick Grayson” during the 1970s; that must be an effect of the sampling, not a natural plateau. On the other hand, that same graph may accurately reflect the doldrums of the mid-1980s Superman movies when people stopped caring so much.

The phrase “boy wonder” was on a steep rise in 1940, when DC Comics introduced Batman’s sidekick, and started to level off soon afterward. So did “the boy wonder of,” indicating the use of the phrase in varied contexts. But since 1960 the capitalized forms “Boy Wonder” and “the Boy Wonder” have become more popular than before. Does that mean our culture now has only one Boy Wonder, at least not labeled unironically?

Similarly, the growing popularity of “Batman,” capitalized, may be making the uncapitalized term for a type of servant less popular.

How about “dark knight/Dark Knight”? The phrase was coined by the Romantics, as I wrote back here, and spikes first in the early 1800s. Then it fades for a while, returning with a vengeance (and capital letters) in the mid-1980s after Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. I mean, right after.

Likewise, the capitalized and specific “Superman” now soars over the uncapitalized and generic “superman.”

And here we see the spread of the terms comics, comic strip, comic book, graphic novel, and bande dessinee (no accent marks) at different moments in time. TOMORROW: Google Books Ngram Viewing and Oz.

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