Google Book Data Shows the Resurgence of the Geek

Geekery was popular in the early 19th century, but its heyday began in the 1980s. That’s just one conclusion to be drawn from a fascinating new tool from Google.

The Google Book Ngram Viewer allows users to search for the popularity of words in 5.2 million books that the company has scanned and digitized: that’s around one third of the entire collection that remains to be scanned by the company, and is estimated to be 4% of all books ever published. The dataset was created for a research project to be published in Science magazine.

Users can select any time period dating back as far as the 16th century. I’ve noted the timescales in the graphs here in case they aren’t legible to all readers.

The image above (1700 to 2008) shows the how widely geek was used. As expected, it’s risen rapidly since 1980, but did have an earlier peak around 1800 to 1820. At that point it almost certainly refers to carnival and circus freaks (deriving from German “geck”, which translates as freak), most notably performers who would bite the head off a live chicken.

The timing is interesting, as I’d always thought of the term in that context as being related to large-scale traveling carnivals, which were most popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the early 19th century its more likely to be circus-based.

So what of the computer geek?

This graph (1985-2008) shows how remarkably smoothly the increase in the term’s popularity has been. There’s not the sudden rise that you might expect as the world wide web takes off in the late 90s. It’s also notable how it’s not until around 2006 that the frequency begins to level off.

A look at “computer hacker” (1985-2008) also throws up a surprise: a notable downwards trend starting around 2002. I can’t imagine why references to hacking fell during this time, so my guess would be that some writers began using more specific terms about the exact type of security breach people are carrying out.

“Twitter” (1850-2008) is a clear example of how technology can change language. I’m not sure what made the term so popular around the start of the 20th century (perhaps a lot of sweet literary writing, perhaps a lot of ornithology), but it’s clear that there’s a modern resurgance. That’s all the more notable given that the data only covers books published in the first two year’s of the microblogging site’s history, and that’s before it really hit it big.

So readers, what intriguing patterns are you able to find using the tool?

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