Reading into the Past: Google Ngram

Travel into the past and discover the conversations of our ancestors. I may be exaggerating just a smidgen there, I hope I didn’t get your hopes up for true time travel, what I am instead referring to is the Google Ngram viewer, which essentially lets you travel back in time with a web browser to discover what was being written and talked about hundreds of years ago. Of course this is not quite as awesome as real time travel, but is still an interesting tool you can use to intrigue your mind and waste time.


Google Labs designed and released this product in 2010, its purpose and function is to search for letter combinations, words and phrases from within the Google Books library. This library is rather impressive too, consisting of over 30 million books that Google has digitized and now holds within its servers, in multiple languages and from as far back as 1500.

Using this function of the now all powerful Google is very easy, simply write the words or phrases to search for separated by commas, and hit the ‘search’ button, and voilá! You are presented with an interesting graph of lines through time, each represents the number of times the chosen word or phrase appears in books each year; you can change the time parameters and the languages you’d like to search in, making this a rather versatile and potentially useful piece of equipment.


So let’s try some searches together and see what we can ponder over: First, try entering ‘who, what, when, where, why, how,’ this will give us idea of how curious people were and what the most common questions were; the results show us a big spike in the early 1700s, with ‘who’ clearly streaking ahead of the competition. Next we can try ‘science, religion,’ science has a nice steady rise to it whereas religion had a  large jump in the mid 1700s, the same time science starts to make its way up. ‘Football, rugby, golf, basketball’ finds expectedly football reigning supreme, rugby being the least popular of the bunch, they all take a slight dip in the 1960s, but are back in popular demand more recently. ‘New York, Paris, London, Rome’ displays Rome as being the most common of the lot in the early years but fading away recently. London and Paris hold steady and New York comes on strong in the end to surpass the others. Finally let’s try ‘Spanish, French, German, English, Italian, Japanese,’ the results predictably have English continuously up the top, although French makes for some stiff competition, the others fail to make much of a dent until the 1900s when German takes a spike, most likely due to the World Wars, and Japanese starts to rise in popularity.


If you’d like to dig a little deeper the Ngram offers a very large variety of phrases and techniques to alter your search, using plus signs and defining adjectives and far far more means there is a great deal of potential to unveil within. There is also a very neat little option of following the links down the bottom of the page, which take you to the books in which your search criteria appear.

What are some other interesting searches? Do you think this a useful tool? Have you tried to find any books with your name yet?