Sunday, December 26, 2010

Honor, Courage and Culturnomics?

By Bill Doughty

Imagine you could analyze all the words in all the books ever published. Google and a team of scientists and mathematicians are on their way. The team analyzed nearly 5.2 million books -- 4 percent of all books ever printed. They published their study in Science this month.

The concept is called Culturnomics, and the tool to access the database is available to readers everywhere in the form of the Google Ngram Viewer. Plug in a word or words or phrase and start the word genome fun.

What insights are revealed by evaluating 500 billion words?

  • You discover 500,000 English words previously missed by all dictionaries.
  • You can analyze the rise (and fall) of famous people, ideologies and cultural memes.
  • You can study trends in technology, history and grammar.

I entered the words of the Navy Core Values, “Honor, Courage, Commitment” and found some interesting trends in the English language from 1800-2008. The word “courage” peaked in usage in the early 1850s. Both words have been on a fairly steady decline ever since, but began to rise again in popularity within the past 30 years.

“Commitment” was much less used till WWII, when it began a steady climb. All three words intersected in 1970. Since then, “commitment” has been more popular in published works than “honor” and “courage,” but all three seem to be on course to intersect again.

There are in-depth reports on the concept, looking at Culturnomics from all sides, on Discover blog posts by Ed Yong and Razib Khan.

A great discussion about Culturnomics and the N-gram tool was held recently on Tom Ashbrook’s show on WBUR Boston. Tom and his guests provide context, like the Discover thinkers, reveal insights and show potential risks, including over-generalization of data revealed.

Have fun typing in “Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean.” Which do you think is almost always dominant over two centuries? Look at the commotion around 1812. Punch in “submarine, destroyer, carrier.” Peaks in all three occur in 1920 (starting in 1910) and 1941-1945. Try “admiral, sailor” or “Chief of Naval Operations” or “Maritime Strategy” or “naval aviation.” All interesting results.

I'll be back in 2011 with some more Navy Professional Reading Program and related reviews. Happy New Year!