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December 29, 2010


Introducing: The Memeogram

by brainoids
Or, Language Is A Virus (2010 Remix)

Google Books has given the gift of public Ngrams for the holidays, and it has inspired me to officially design a new visualization, and coin a new term:  the memeogram.   Since Google itself only returns 16 results in a search for “memeogram”, I’m pretty confident that this word does not yet exist, and I get squatters’ rights as of 29 December 2010.

  • Memeogram (meem-ey-oh-gram) [n]:   A graph composed of plotting the peak frequency vs time of peak frequency for keywords / ngrams / memes, with markers comprised of the words themselves.
  • Plain english: These graphs show the year at which individual words or phrases “peaked” in popularity (frequency of occurrence) in the database of all books scanned at GoogleBooks.

In the spirit of New Years resolutions, I have composed memeograms of several hundred “positive and aspirational” English words, broken out roughly categorically below.   Enjoy!

Words of Passion

This memeogram is my favorite, mostly because it speaks for itself, and still contains some surprises. The descent to “base” pleasures in recent years is amusing, and the groupings gel with what I would expect from the various periods.   The apparent proliferation of writing about the arts post-World War II was surprising to me; perhaps it correlates to the rise of the American higher education “academy”.

Words of Liberty

Most evident here are the overlapping evolutions of national and personal liberty in the 20th century.  Some of the most interesting features aren’t shown in the memeogram itself:  the individual ngram time trends of many of these words have many sub-peaks beyond the primary peak, as different movements took hold over time.  I may explore a memeogram variant which includes secondary peaks in a future revision.

Words of Society

Another remarkably organized and coherent result … the words describing how [wo]man interacts with his/her fellow [wo]man have clearly evolved over time.   In the early 1800’s, the proliferation of religious writing (see below) results in a number of “one to one” virtues in the social arena peaking, generally indicating fulness of “heart”.  In the early 1900’s, labor movements yield peaks in words focused on brotherhood, solidarity, and unity.  The words are still “one person to one person”, but there is an aggregate theme of something greater.   By the 1970s and beyond, the global has supplanted the personal with increasing emphasis on interconnectedness and interdependence.

Words of Authority

This one should be subtitled The Life and Death of American Chivalry [1780-1860].  It is slightly depressing.

Words of Pursuit

I’ve intentionally colored words differently here based on whether they lean towards ambition (lighter brown) or determination (darker brown).   Entrepreneurial vs methodical.   Something like that.  What I most enjoy is the weight of somewhat tiresome WWII and Cold War “industrious” terms giving way to the more generative and creative.   Where next?

Words of Diversion

A light confection.   The title for the first grouping might be better named To the Manor Born.   It is fascinating that laughter and humor found their heyday in the 1920s and 1930s (roaring 20’s, or antidote to Depression?) while the suburban virtues of “hobby”, “recreation” and “vacation” peaked immediately after the end of World War II.

Words of Intellect

There are all sorts of dualities swimming under the surface of this one.   External vs internal, structure vs meaning … the latter is my favorite, particularly the post-Cold War surge in words focused on “understanding” the world, vs organizing and modeling it.

Words of Piety

Another largely self-explanatory memeogram.   I have to say, the act (chore) of compiling the data really underscored how monotone and tiresome the early 19th century Puritanical rantings probably were (even the ngrams are tedious, forget the actual books).   There’s a reason I hated early American literature.

Another delight is the cluster labelled “Slow!!!” from 1780-1800.   Some folks obviously sensed the pace of the world about to a-quicken…

Words of Settlement

Most interesting to me in that while having families is timeless, writing incessantly about having families appears to be a more recent phenomenon.   I guess the correct subtitle is Culture War.

All Good Things

And now, the grand compilation:

The compilation is much more readable in PDF … it and the complete collection above are available for download as a PDF here: Memeogram: All Good Things .

Please help me fill in the gaps by recommending missed words and phrases!

Thoughts on the memeogram (and ngrams in general)

There has been a decent amount of (legitimate) criticism of the use of keyphrase counts to indicate or study cultural issues.  Assuming that over time quality control and sampling issues will be resolved, the issue of underlying meaning remains.   Hopefully the memeograms above demonstrate a “pointillist” effect : raw count data may need to be taken in aggregate to point the way towards actual trends and connections.

Does this simplistic re-use of scatterplot warrant its own name?   Maybe so, maybe no, but hey, it’s not everyday the opportunity to coin a word comes up.   I will point out that this type of highly statistical, quantitative lexical analysis (whether through Google Books, Google Insights, Twitter, etc) has only been made possible in the last couple of years, and the raw time trends do need some data compression (peak extraction) to examine in the aggregate.

You decide:

Update, 12/30 – Here’s The Obligatory Wordle

All Good Things in Google Books Ngrams

Many Eyes

Notes and disclaimers: Peak years and frequencies were estimated visually from the Google Books graphs, using a 10-year smoothing filter and the full English corpus. Only the window from 1750-2008 was examined. I made a limited effort to screen out “medial s” issues in the late 1700’s, but may have miffed fome. Due to an apparent bug in the Google ngram grapher with establishing the maximum y-range, there may be small (~10%) errors in the estimated peak frequencies (try it yourself … very annoying.) No, this was not automated analysis, and yes, I know the last ten years are exaggerated on the x-axis. Needless to say, the topical clusterings are my own and purely decorative; these memeograms are meant for entertainment purposes only. Liberal arts academics, please keep this in mind when offering “constructive criticism”.
8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Laurie Provin
    Dec 29 2010

    Well, haven’t you just been a busy beaver! I just mostly drank on my vacation.

    Some possible missing words: “Words of Pursuit”/opportunity
    “Words of Intellect”/wisdom

    And, frankly, how can “liquor” not be on a memeogram entitled “Words of Diversion”? See first sentence.
    BTW- The pictures of Huntsville in the snow totally rock!


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