Ngram Viewer and the human condition

Whoa, the Google Ngram Viewer databases have been updated! They now incorporate usages right up through 2019. When did that happen? As I recall, the English-language database recently stopped somewhere in the aughts. Or maybe the last update was through 2015. The previous database segment for English appears to be 2012–2015.

Never used the Ngram Viewer? It’s my first stop now for questions of usage. I no longer get to work as a copyeditor, but even so I probably check Ngram once or twice a week on average. Comparing words and phrases there gives you in a fraction of a second compendious quantitative data on usage that Fowler and the OED editors and Noah Webster could not have begun to dream of compiling with every country parson in the known universe jotting down and mailing in observations on slips of paper for decades on end.

The country parsons: this is how some of the great classics of 19th- and early-20th-century lexicography were created. Lots of well-read English country clerics. They read English, Greek, Latin, and other texts for profit and pleasure and didn’t mind jotting down things they saw to help compile date for the Oxford English Dictionary or the Lampe Patristic Greek Lexicon or whatever.

Ngram neither excuses nor accuses, explains nothing, has no feel for the language, indeed knows nothing. It is not a person. It is not a substitute for the judgments of long-practiced, sensitive observers and explainers of the nuances of language usage. But it certainly can tell you in a flit of a hummingbird wing how many times in a massive corpus of literature writers have used one phrase or spelling as compared to another.

In the example depicted, I was wondering how to write the name of the French pastry called “thousand layers” or “thousand-layer” (or “leaf” rather than layer). I knew how it was pronounced, but is it written open, hyphenated, or closed? With our without the “s” to make “leaf” plural? Turns French usage is different from American-English usage.

I used to be offended by the fact that usage manuals and dictionaries claim to be reporting on actual usage, not laying down immutable rules of right and wrong. I picked this attitude up from my daddy, but I think it’s widespread: why, if enough people start using (pick any word or phrase that gets misunderstood and misused), in a few years the dictionaries will start saying it’s right!

For example, people who know the rhetorical tradition will know that an ad hominem argument is an appeal to personal sympathies (or antipathies) as opposed to a demonstration of objective logic. People who don’t know the tradition and misinterpret a couple of examples start thinking that an ad hominem argument is an attack on one’s opponent’s character in lieu of an answer to their reasoning. And sure enough, in a few years the dictionaries and usage manuals start saying that there are two meanings of ad hominem. And they don’t necessarily say that the former is right and the latter is wrong. They say that the former is older. Bugs the heck out of me. And don’t get me started on “begs the question”! Not to mention “for whomever did it.” I feel my blood pressure rising. Some things are just plain wrong! So maybe I should have written “I tend to be” rather than “I used to be” in the first sentence of this paragraph. Really I am constitutionally a conservative person.

But where was I? The recognition and legitimation of change over time is how the evolution of usage works. Individuals don’t get to deviate randomly from norms. But when the whole world is in motion, you reach a tipping point.

Was anyone bothered by my use of “their” rather than “his” or “his or her” two paragraphs ago? Want to argue about it? Or just accept that usage is changing, and not for no reason? Disagreements about particular points of usage sometimes stand in for disagreements about the merits of social change. Rebuke someone’s use today of the “tar baby” metaphor, and you’re likely to tap a rich vein of resentment regarding the imperious requirements of wokeness or political correctness. The offender won’t want to hear about the ways in which common (among older white people, anyway) linguistic usages encode and extend racist (or sexist, or nationalist, etc.) prejudices and practices.

Even more broadly, one’s attitude about rectitude in language usage may align with one’s reflexive response to progress or declension in morals. Gay marriage, anyone? What is the correct definition of the word “marriage”? But then how long does it take for that question to open out into: can something be immoral in one century (or millennium) and then right in another? Is this craven moral relativism? Or is it a proper humility, teachability, willingness to acknowledge that one’s own perceptions may be incomplete, inaccurate, and then become more comprehensively accurate? How about one’s interpretations of one’s sacred texts? Or how about the assumptions elaborated in the sacred texts themselves? If there is any human participation at all in their composition, can they really be “inerrant in the autographs”? Or would inerrancy obliterate (ignore) the human entirely?

You don’t have to be able to use language well, or even at all, to be a valid and valuable human individual, but in general being human is so bound up with using language, and vice versa, that disagreements about language usage will never cease until human existence ceases. Good statistics on usage will by no means settle every dispute. But they answer some questions, and for the rest they may help us at least get a grip on what we’re disagreeing about.

As a person who for a couple of decades beginning in the mid-eighties spent many hundreds (thousands?) of hours deciding in detail what numerous authors could and couldn’t do by way of spelling, grammar, and style in books published by maybe a dozen publishing companies—no, more than that, because in addition to editing manuscripts myself I also wrote parts of a style manual that many publishers use—I can take some satisfaction in knowing that my own lofty decrees are now part of the ocean of data drawn upon by Ngram by other people wondering how this or that phrase or word is used or spelled. Take some satisfaction or, depending on my mood, be galled at my own presumptuousness. Nah, more satisfaction.

Anyway, viva Ngram Viewer.

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