Google has released a new tool to play with, its “Books ngram viewer,” which allows users to look at the frequency of word and phrase use over time, based on the data available in its Google Books program. By typing a word or phrase into the viewer, you can see the proportion (% of all words in Google Books) for the word or phrase each year. Since Google Books contains a large proportion of all works published in English each year, the results are likely a good indication of the word or phrase’s cultural impact in a year.
The tool allows you to restrict the Google Books database by a handful of different “corpus” (mostly different languages, but one corpus is “English Fiction” – presumably fiction in English). So, naturally, I selected the “English Fiction” corpus for the years 1820 to 2010 and typed in the word “Mormon” and immediately discovered a mystery:
The spike in the middle of the graph occurs in the year 1928, an it is at least four times the average year. If you click on the image, you’ll be given a new window with the ngram viewer for this graph, which includes links to search the books where Mormon is listed in Google Books. However, it doesn’t let you restrict the Google Books listings to the “English Fiction” corpus, so it is hard to tell what is going on. I glanced through many of the listings, but didn’t see anything that jumped out at me that would explain why Mormon was suddenly so popular a word that year, and not in any other year.
Running the “Mormon” query on a less restricted corpus (“English” for example) gives a similar 1928 spike, but also a very understandable spike in 1890 — accounted for by the announcement that year that the LDS Church would no longer practice polygamy.
So, I have no answer for this mystery. I tend to think that it must be related to fiction somehow, given that it continues into the fiction corpus when the 1890 spike does not. Any ideas?
Regardless of this mystery, I think this will be an interesting tool to play with and one that has the potential to yield insight both into how Mormons have been perceived in writing and how Mormons have used language over time.