Search-engine giant Google has a new tool for exploring 5.2 million books it has digitized, and not just in English but also Chinese, French, German, Russian and Spanish.
But unlike its Web search function, this tool, called the Ngram Viewer, goes through the 500 billion words in those books to show trends in word usage. It can determine how often words, or phrases, show up in a given year.
Using the viewer, historians, language experts or anyone with a home computer can track items as seemingly trivial, for example, as when "hep cat" entered the popular lexicon, or when writers generally stopped using the phrase "dying of consumption."
Historians can determine which of three former presidents — Abraham Lincoln, George Washington or Thomas Jefferson — made the most appearances in print in a given decade. (Washington surpassed Lincoln sometime around 1928 and has remained in the lead ever since.)
The tool, which is free to use, does not have access at this time to all the 15 million books Google has digitized since 2004.
"We hope the Google Books Ngram Viewer will spark some new hypotheses ripe for in-depth investigation, and invite casual exploration at the same time," Google Books engineering manager Jon Orwant said on the company's blog.