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Google Books Ngram Viewer

  Books Ngram Viewer is addictive. I can’t stop looking up words and phrases.

This new tool allows users to trace the usage of a word or phrase for printed works over the past five centuries. It searches (frighteningly fast) through five million books, or around four percent of all books ever published. That apparently equates to some 500 billion or so unique words. 

I looked up ‘cyberspace’ on a whim. As expected, usage climbed following the release of William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ in 1984 (although Wikipedia notes that the first reference came from a Gibson short story in 1982). Curiously, however, the graph showed a little bump around 1900. A short bit of Googling later, and I found a reference to the word in the ‘Memoirs and proceedings of the Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society‘ from 1888. Hmm.

I’m sure we’ll be seeing many such interesting finds in the coming weeks and months, but I suspect most will be due to OCR errors or misinterprations (akin to ‘discoveries’ of the lost city of Atlantis in Google Earth).

For more on the Ngram Viewer, check out this new study from Science (free access!) or this New York Times article.

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