New UCLA Research on Long Run Trends in Word Use in U.S and U.K Books

You can’t always “get” what you want?    UCLA Professor Patricia Greenfield has a new empirical study documenting that the words “choose” and “get” rose significantly in frequency between books published in 1800 versus 2000, while “obliged” and “give” decreased significantly over these two centuries.    This is an interesting empirical finding and highlights how empirical humanities research will make advances.  She is quoted as attributing these trends to the rise of individualism and materialistic values.  How would she test this hypothesis?   A possible selection bias issue lurks here.   Who wrote books (and who read books)  in 1800 versus today?  Has the world changed or has the set of authors changed?

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

8 thoughts on “New UCLA Research on Long Run Trends in Word Use in U.S and U.K Books”

  1. The linkage is more convincing for some of the other words cited in the linked page – obedience, authority, belong and pray than for get and give. These are modal verbs, used in many compound forms remote from their root social meanings: get/give up, get/give over, get/give away, get off, get in, get out. Get is richer in modal forms than give, so the increased relative frequency may also reflect a greater use of informal varieties of English in books.

    In any case, the surprise would have been if there had not been any such shift in frequency. Eskimos do not have dozens of words for snow as the urban legend has it, but some languages seem to have a somewhat richer vocabulary in the area than say Californians. Well, well.

  2. Perhaps Professor Greenfield’s study is not as simplistic as the précis linked above would indicate, but my goodness she seems to load up some words with a lot more freight than they should be asked to bear. “Get” = individualism and materialistic values? Really? Get is one of the most complicated verbs in English (with a very long and complicated entry in the OED). Does she distinguish among its many dozens of meanings? I don’t get it. I’m going to get married. Try to get a good night’s sleep. It’s getting late. Get a load of that guy! To get a good job, get a good education. If you divide 27 by 9 you get three. I asked, but I could get no answer out of her. I think I’m getting a cold. He gets on my nerves. He got thirty years in prison. Could you get the door, please? Can’t you get it through your head that he’s no good? Damn, I didn’t get into Harvard. Let’s get going. She’s got you right where she wants you. That song really gets to me. Go on, get out! I’m gonna get that sonofabitch. I can’t wait to get home. I couldn’t get him to talk sense. I’m not getting through to you, am I? You’ve got to be kidding! Go and catch a falling star, Get with child a mandrake root, Tell me where all past years are, Or who cleft the devil’s foot.

    Okay, that was fun, but it barely scratched the surface of get.

    1. Or, for that matter, “curse Sir Walter Raleigh, he was such stupid get” (or, if you prefer, “git”).

      1. John sang “get” very distinctly. I thought of including that, but decided to confine myself to the verb.

  3. Kind of obvious, but a first step would be to weight by sales of the books (when we know them). That puts more emphasis on what gets read than what gets written. Maybe she already did this…

    1. That’s probably do-able (albeit with substantial measurement error) from 1942 or so. 1942 was the onset of the New York Times Bestseller List. Prior to that, perhaps there are other publishing industry lists. I doubt those records go much earlier than the late 19th Century.

      I suppose publisher’s records could be used where they are extant. But how does a publisher’s count of stock compare to sales? I don’t know, except that the latter are necessarily no larger than the former. In addition, how do you weight a library sale relative to a sale to an individual? Library copies are likely to receive much wider distribution. In computing weighted statistics, the choice of weights is pretty crucial. Using several inconsistent sources of weights is problematic.

  4. What kinds of books? Law books? Collections of sermons? Appliance repair instruction manuals? Philosophical festschriften? Romance novels? Mother Goose? Put them in all the blender – each book weighted the same, with no regard for sales – and pour out the words, they’re all books that “we” read and therefore conclusions about “our” values can be safely drawn.

  5. If the folks at Language Log bother to look at this, they’ll probably tear it apart — the criticisms Herschel made and then some. There words you could use in the same simplistic way to show that we are less individualistic. For example, cooperate, group, team, and even family all show an increase in the 20th century.

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