The Century in Literary Trends

Google’s Book Ngram viewer tracks the relative popularity of English words over the last century. Some that might interest you:

  • Jesus: peak 1930s, trough 1940-60, ascendant.
  • Islam: peak 1975-78, steady increase 1990-2008.
  • Deficit: peak 1989-91, steady decrease since.
  • Reagan: steady modest plateau for his presidency, decrease 1990-98, almost logarthmic exponential gain since 2000.
  • Racism:  climb to peak in 1972, near-plateau through 1985, climb to peak in 1998, and fall off.
  • Sexy: steady increase since 1960.

Conclusions (all subject to debate):

  • We turn to Christianity in crisis, and as a continuing reaction to the 1960’s.
  • Islam was a growing force in English thought through 9/11.
  • We cared about the deficit very briefly, after Reagan piled it on, but not so much thereafter.
  • Reagan’s cult of personality kicked off in earnest after 1998.
  • We think we’re post-racial, even if we’re not.
  • Sexual liberalization is reflected in writing.


  1. I think you mean that “Reagan” is exponential, not logarithmic, since 2000. Logarithmic would be leveling off.

  2. My sheepish thanks :)

  3. I think the conclusion you draw from “sexy” is unsupported by the pattern for sex itself. Then there’s the bizarre pattern for horny.

    Here’s what I think is interesting: curmudgeon. Apparently grumpy old men have been on the rise since the 80s.

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