A Word, Please: Tired of hearing that word? You can find out if it’s always been so popular

A woman wears a bandanna in Huntington Beach at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in April 2020.
A woman wears a bandanna — or bandana — on the sand in Huntington Beach at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in April 2020.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Years back, a reader of this column mentioned that, all of a sudden, she was hearing the word “whinge” everywhere. What was up with that, she wanted to know. I had no answer. To my recollection, that was the first time I’d ever come across the word “whinge.”

Back then, I didn’t know about Ngram Viewer — a Google service you can use to search published writing to learn how popular a word is over time. Ngram Viewer lets you choose from several different databases of published works, some dating back to 1800. Just put in the word and you’ll see the percentage of books your word appeared in, plotted over time.

That’s how I learned that my reader was right: “whinge,” which means to complain or whine, was extremely rare in print until about 1980, when it suddenly began skyrocketing, peaking in 2012. So I wondered: Is “whinge” replacing “whine”? Ngram Viewer lets you plot words in comparison to each other, so I typed in “whinge, whine” and saw that my theory was wrong. “Whine,” like “whinge,” also started getting more popular around 1980, peaking in the 2010s. Yet “whine” remains far more common — appearing about 40 times as often as “whinge.”


This all reminded me of another reader question I couldn’t answer many years ago: Is “fraught with” losing ground to just plain-old “fraught”? In my experience, definitely. I never heard “fraught” by itself until pretty recently. So I searched them both. It turns out that the standalone “fraught” has gotten more popular in my lifetime, but that’s only because it dipped in popularity in the decades leading up to the 1960s. For a century and a half before then, “fraught” without “with” was about as popular as it is today.

Sometimes, when I notice a word or phrase or spelling getting more popular, I get annoyed. I can’t defend my reaction. Language changes, so I need to accept it. But when I’ve put in the effort to learn, say, how to spell “bandanna” then notice everyone, including professionals, spelling it “bandana,” I can’t help but bristle. I worry that my little nugget of spelling wisdom is being rendered obsolete by the passage of time. In the case of “bandanna,” it is. The single-n spelling overtook the double-n spelling in the early 2010s, and dictionaries allow both spellings, so I don’t expect it to recover anytime soon.

A comparison between a report written by a human and one composed by AI reveals the weaknesses of the latter when it comes to journalism.

April 9, 2024

Because I edit a lot of marketing copy, I get a close-up look at annoying word trends like “immersive.” Apparently, some years back, marketers figured this adjective can make any trip, amusement park or museum exhibit sound more intense. Everything is an “immersive experience” these days. Or is it just me? Nope. “Immersive,” according to Ngram Viewer, was practically nonexistent till around 1990, when it began skyrocketing, with no end in sight, unfortunately.

Sometimes the language trends I notice in my work are not mirrored in the culture at large. For example, lately, I keep seeing “wellbeing” in place of “well-being.” That’s wrong, according to dictionaries and editing guides, and it’s also fascinating because it’s a window into how hyphenated terms slowly over time become closed terms. “Teen-ager” and “good-bye” are examples. But according to Ngram Viewer, “wellbeing” isn’t any more popular relative to “well-being” than it’s ever been, at least not through 2019, the last year the database includes. Both terms have gotten more popular, presumably because books and articles about health have been on the rise. But “well-being” remains far more common than its closed counterpart.

Ditto that for “step foot,” as in “I wouldn’t step foot in that restaurant,” which I suddenly hear people say all the time instead of “set foot.” They have both gotten more popular in print in recent years, but “set foot” has maintained a strong lead over “step foot,” I’m pleased to say.

So if you ever find yourself wondering, “Is everyone using this word nowadays, or is it just me?” you can confirm or debunk your fears with just a few keystrokes.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at