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December 24, 2010

Google Tool Shines Light on 200 Years of Cultural History

If you fancy yourself a bit of a word-smith, you’ll love the latest plaything to come out of Google Labs.

The Books Ngrams Viewer is a search engine that enables you to trawl the 500 billion words making up the 5.2 million digitized books in Google’s Book Search. The viewer lets you look for specific words or phrases – and here’s the fun part – it graphs the frequency of their written use over time, giving you a historical snapshot of word usage since the year 1800 and up to 2008.

I was busting to test this out, so I ran a search for the first phrase that popped into my head *Lord of the Rings*. My search triggered a curious graph showing a few mentions of the phrase between 1896 and 1900. Curious, because I knew the trilogy was written between 1937 and 1949 and first published by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1954.

So how could there be references as early as 1896?

The Ngram Viewer enables you to pinpoint a specific dateline for your search, so I narrowed the date down to 1880-1900, clicked on the results that came up in Google Book Search and found my answer: The 1895 translation of the Old English poem Beowulf by William Morris.

Here’s one of the specific extracts of the text, (scanned into Google Books) that references the phrase *Lord of the Rings*:

“The end of the world sure, and the worm with him also

Though long he had holden the weal of the hoard.

Forsooth scorned then the lord of the rings

That he that wide-flier with war-band should seek,

With a wide host; he fear’d not that war for himself,

Nor for himself the Worm’s war accounted one whit…”

Beowulf is a battle poem of epic proportions, set in Scandinavia and written by an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet sometime between the 8th and the early 11th century. It fell into oblivion for many centuries and its existence did not become widely known again until it was translated from Danish to English and printed in 1815.

It was the ninth English translation published in 1895 by the famous writer William Morris that caught the attention of Tolkien. In his interviews, Tolkien credited Morris and the poem Beowulf for providing inspiration while writing the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Prior to using the Ngram Viewer, I was not aware of Beowulf’s impact on Tolkien or of any prior reference to Lord of the Rings before the trilogy itself.

I digress, but this is the type of side-tracking, micro-data that the Books Ngram Viewer delivers. Before you know it, you’re in the time machine and on a click journey through the ages. No wonder The Atlantic magazine has nicknamed the Ngram Viewer Time Suck of the Day. I can imagine it being used to research characters, settle arguments and prep for exams.

Just to be sure I was using it correctly, I ran a few other searches, such as *computer*, *cell phone* and *ice cream* and in each case was presented with a graph displaying when each those words / phrases came into use over the course of the past 200 years. The impact of major world events such as WWI and WWII and even 9/11 can be clearly distinguished in graphs triggered by some of the queries.

You can also graph two or more words and have comparison historical usage graphs show up on a single chart. For example, telegram and telephone and horses and cars.

This type of comparative search gives us not only a literary history lesson, but a cultural snapshot of the development of modern technology. Fascinating stuff!

In terms of daily application, the Ngram Viewer is one of the most exciting things to come out of Google Labs in years. It’s bound to be a well-used bookmark for students, journalists, researchers and authors alike. Just try not to get too sidetracked.

Article by Kalena Jordan, one of the first search engine optimization experts in Australia, who is well known and respected in the industry, particularly in the U.S. As well as running a daily Search Engine Advice Column, Kalena manages Search Engine College – an online training institution offering instructor-led short courses and downloadable self-study courses in Search Engine Optimization and other Search Engine Marketing subjects.