Culture Wars: The Rise and Fall of Word Empires

What Google Books can teach us about hummus, God, and the Internet.

I recently discovered Google’s Ngram Viewer, which graphs the historical frequency of words in the corpus of books. It’s similar to Google Trends, a tool to explore search volume and see what’s trending. Whereas Ngram is a visualization of what authors believe people are interested in, and hence write about, Trends graphs people’s actual interests. Both are addicting to any data junkie.

So, what can the world’s database of words teach us about culture?

Stomach Wars: Guacamole v. Hummus

First, the small stuff. I grew up on hummus (pronounced with a guttural “chu-moos”), and after the 2007 acquisition of Sabra by PepsiCo, I’ve been watching the steady march of hummus into the American diet. In particular, I wondered whether all dips were created equal — namely, would hummus cannibalize other dips and spreads as it spread its wings across grocery shelves nationwide? Unfortunately, there’s little publicly available revenue data to dig in. But after a bit of digging around Ngram (English-only), an interesting trend emerged: hummus started surpassing guacamole around 2005, and continued to widen its lead through 2008.

hummus, guacamole, ngram

Holy guacamole! Does this mean the end of the green dream? Unlikely, particularly as Trends shows a near head to head search war, with guac dominating throughout. But it does mean the chickpea can put up a strong fight, especially with Big Food stocking its arsenal.

Intellectual Wars: God v. Self

Onto a less trivial topic: God. What is happening to religiosity in a world of a supersize self, with the constant digital chirping of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the rise of 100 other new hot spots to develop your online identity. Even pre-social, did the gilded age of staunch individualism, American dreams of rags to Wall Street riches, create an increased reliance on the self over that of a higher power? In other words, is belief in God giving way to a culture of me?

Many argue just that, though both Trends and Ngram data show the opposite is true. Actually, we’re seeing an uptick in interest in God in the early 2000s. A closer look at literary references to God shows that the use of the word has  plummeted consistently since the late 19th century, paving way to a much closer race between the God and Self.

god, self, ngram


Tech Wars: Phone v. TV v. Internet 

Finally, what of technology? Do all game changers rise along the same slopes of excitement, questioning, and speed-fire adoption? It seems that not all technologies are created equal. The Internet’s rise is unparalleled, racing into existence in a fraction of time.


Interestingly, TVs transitioned to color through the 1950’s and 60’s, mapping to a steep slope change around 1965 when the benefits of seeing the world in color were starkly felt.  Another seismic shift — the 2001 DotCom burst — marks the decline of the Internet in the canon, whereas 2004 marks the peak of phone ramblings, just prior to the eBay acquisition of Skype and rise of VoIP. Granted, the correlation of all these trends are quite dubious if you take into account that with the rise of the Internet, we saw a rise in the non-printed word: blogs, digital publications, and websites.

Enough of my afternoon musings. What patterns did you find?


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