The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Dec 282010

Google’s recent release of their database of books makes for some interesting generational research. The Ngram tool gives insights into the comparative occurrence of various words over the last two hundred years (from a large sample of books). Some interesting examples:

Try “sex”. Or try “erotic,” takes off in the Third Turning (Unraveling) 90s just as “sex” tires.  Or try “love” (and “death”), which are both less used nowadays than ever before.  I had a history prof once who used to say that there was a law of compensation or trade-off, in any era, between thinking about sex and death.  Eras obsessed with one regard the other as taboo.  In Victorian times, no one could talk about “sex” but everyone talked about “death” all the time.  (Just think how much care went into gravestones and funerals!)  Today, of course, it’s the reverse.

Try “Man”, used in the 19th c. was used all the time as an all-purpose reference to person, individual, society, etc.  (It was used 5 or 6x as much as “woman.”)  That ubiquitous usage began declining after 1900—and dropping much faster after the late 1960s.

“Woman” usage has naturally been much flatter, though with a fascinating upward surge in the 3rd Great Awakening (peaking in 1900), a deep downward slide in the 4th and 1st Turning of the 1930s through the 1950s, and a resurgence again starting exactly at the beginning of the Consciousness Revolution.

And these from my friend Pete Markiewicz:

First Turning (the High) devaluation of ‘woman’

Nice spike on wars

A word appearing in the Third Turning (Unraveling)

A word jumping in the 2T

A word jumping in the (old) 2T

Some interesting peaks and valleys

Same, different

Hippie and its echo



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  • Chicago H
  • Timothy

    try “sporting” it appears on third turnings.

  • Shadowcat60

    That’s great, Neil-what about WikiLeaks? How about the possible permanent decline of Europe, an area of the world that is in worse shape than the U.S.? How about our own future, when the government does not appear to be factoring in We the People in its negotiations or in the grand scheme of things on both sides of the aisle? How about the fact that it would appear that very corrupt and unstable governments are gaining in power, like China, Venezuela, and Russia, and how that is a bad, bad thing?nn-We’ve already spoken on the matter. I wonder where the phrase do-or-die appears on this thing you mention now….

  • JPT
  • LAK

    I’m from the Nomad generation-X, and our group is just finding out that affluence, or even middle class comfort, is going to elude us. Growing up behind the Boomer wave has left little opportunity. As Neil mentions that Sex was a taboo word for the WWII generation, and Death is taboo for the Boomers: “Money” is the taboo word for Gen-X’ers. Try using that word around that age group, and watch how awkward the mode gets.

    • HKA

      I completely agree. Spot on.

  • Thanks! A simplified version of this widget used to be embedded in google’s book search, but then was removed. So I’m very glad to find it as a standalone program.

  • Margie

    the increase in the word violence does not indicate a more violent society, rather, more of an obsession with violene.
    Also, if you program the nrgram dates from ‘1900’ to ‘2008’ for the word “LOVE”, you will see a surprising upward trend, it’s rather vertical in the use of the word. Very interesting! Either we’re more loving, or the word is becoming increasingly commercialised… take your pick. I love hot dogs! I love the NFL! I love a spa treatment.

  • Esel106

    I was really enjoying this blog… are you coming back, Neil?

  • Segbair

    “Crisp” has odd spikes in 4th turnings. Great insight on “money,” LAK. Notice how “death” and “suicide” have trends that are the inverse of each other. As death becomes more taboo as Boomers rise in power, our culture has also become more alarmed about suicide.

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