Return of the Geeky Google Ngrams

Last week we introduced the Google Books Ngram viewer, which shows how often particular phrases were mentioned in books over time. Now we’re bringing you some more attempts to see what history can tell us.

Star Wars vs. Star Trek

First up, we have “Star Wars” vs “Star Trek” (1975-2008), which tells us three things. First of all, unless there were a stunning number of books on the US missile defense system, it feels safe to conclude that Solo beats Spock when it comes to book coverage. Secondly, interest appears to have peaked in the late 1980s. While that’s a few years after Return of the Jedi, it may be that there’s a lag effect in the time it takes books to be written and published. Finally, as far as authors are concerned, the emergence of the “first” three episodes starting in 1999 did little if anything to raise interest.

Laptop Computer(s) and Notebook Computer(s)

Comparing “laptop computer” and “notebook computer” (1985 to 2008) throws up a puzzler. At first guess, you might think the decline in “laptop computer” starting in 2004 was the result of people using “notebook computer” instead. However, notebook computers turn out to have been mentioned since the early 90s and follow a similar (if less extreme) pattern. So why the dip?

Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons (1975-2008) throws up another surprise. I’d always thought of the game as being most popular in the late 70s and early 80s, falling from favor in the 1990s as electronic pastimes became ever more prevalent. It turns out that in literary terms at least, the peak was the early and mid-1990s — could this be the lag effect again? That said, there is indeed a notable decline towards the end of the 1990s, when perhaps the Internet began diverting attention.

(Note to purists: Unfortunately the system doesn’t allow for searches with ampersands, meaning “Dungeons & Dragons” simply brings up results for “Dungeons.” And in case you’re wondering, dungeons were more popular than dragons from around 1770 to about 1890; after a few years back and forth, dragons took the lead in 1900 and have retained it ever since.)

Spam, Spam, Spam, Bacon and Spam!

And finally, the two most frequently mentioned meat-related terms on the site, “spam” and “bacon” (1920-2008.) Look very carefully at spam and you might notice a tiny rise in the 1940s, which is likely because the tinned meat proved a valuable import for Europeans, particular in the United Kingdom, during wartime and post-war food rationing. As for the rise of late 1990s and beyond, it seems safe to say that unsolicited e-mail attracted more attention than spiced pork and ham. But is an almost corresponding rise in “bacon” somehow linked, or is it simply a coincidental culinary trend?

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