Charting words

Ngram for Kinetoscope, for the years 1800-2000

Well, the Bioscope is back from its Christmas break, and keen to get the fingertips tapping once more. First up, it’s a new tool from Google Labs which offers interesting ways of analysing silent film subjects (or any other subject, for that matter). The Ngram Viewer uses data taken from the 15 million books and other documents scanned by Google Books to trace the occurence of words or phrases (up to five words) between 1800 and 2000, showing how often they occur each year.

Ngram for Bioscope, showing the first emergence of the word in the early 1800s, then its huge rise in use from 1900 onwards

All you do is enter your search term or phrase, then choose a time period and your language, and you get the results presented as a graph. So, enter the term ‘bioscope’ and you discover that the word first appears in the early 1800s – as indeed it did, having been coined in 1812 by Granville Penn for his religious tract The Bioscope, or Dial of Life. It emerges once again in the late 1890s when it was adopted by a number of early film producers (Charles Urban, Max Skaldanowsky, Georges Demenÿ) as a name for a film projector), its use exploding over the next 15 or 20 years as it became a generic term for cinema. Then it fades as the word ‘cinema’ takes over, only to enjoy a resurgence, probably on account of the increased use of the word as a make of microscope.

Ngram for Cinematograph (blue) v Kinematograph (red)

Having searched for your term, below the graph you are given the option to search Google Books itself for your term by particular time periods or universally (search under 1800-1913 and sure enough Granville Penn’s book comes up first). You can also compare your term with others, by adding a comma-separated second term into the search box, as shown above with a search for Cinematograph v Kinematograph – with the relevant graphs in different colours. You can compare any number of terms, though there are only five colours available.

Ngram for Chronophotography

There seem to be any number of interesting applications for this as a tool, even if the results are approximate and erratic. The frequency of appearance of terms in books is not necessarily a reliable guide to their importance, and some terms register no scores at all (e.g. Gaumont, Muybridge, Mary Pickford), presumably because Google Books hasn’t indexed them yet. But there is more than enough there to encourage imaginative searches and to yield interesting discoveries. I’m certainly intrigued to see the rise, fall and rise again of the word ‘chronophotography’ from 1880 to 2000. Look at the perfect curves of adoption for ‘documentary’ or ‘travelogue’, the absence of ‘silent film’ as a phrase until silent films had almost stopped being produced, or try out a comparison of film companies like this one (while remembering that some company names will be common terms which will skew the results):

Ngram comparing Biograph (red), Vitagraph (blue), Lubin (green) and Nordisk (yellow)

Do have a go, and let us know of any interesting Ngrams that you are able to create.

2 responses

  1. This is a very interesting area and I have taken the liberty of tasking your words and creating some Ngrams relating to my own areas of interest in photographic history. See: I think used with care and with caveats around the source data then Ngrams could help confirm trends in a more quantitative way. As google seeks to digitise the whole world then presumably the source data will become more comprehensive. An interesting example of how digitisation can illuminate and develop scholarship.

  2. Hi Michael,

    It is interesting data, if used with care. Some words don’t register at all, for others you get bafflingly low results (try comparing Dickens with Shakespeare – Shakespeare does badly). Digitisation is developing scholarship and in many ways opening new areas of discovery and new questions to ask. but it’s also bringing in a whole new set of problems, based on reliability, comprehensiveness, quantitative versus qualitative, and so on.

    I’m glad to see British Photo History is doing so well. I had a Ning until a year ago, when I abandoned it owing to uncertainty of purpose and lack of engagement from members – and then Ning brought in charges. I feel quite nostalgic seeing all the features and knowing what you can do with such a tool.

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