Enlightenment and Ngram Wild Card Searches

A link on my Twitter feed this morning alerted me to Ben Zimmer’s article in the Atlantic on a new (and welcome) feature that Google has added to the Ngram:  wild card searches.

Naturally, I thought I’d try it out with “Enlightenment” and “enlightenment”.  Here are the results:


To appreciate what is going on here, it makes more sense to open the Ngram itself in a separate window.  In addition to providing a larger image of the Ngram, working from the actual Ngram allows you to take advantage of the new features than Google has added, including the ability to highlight the graph for the individual words by mousing (or, in the case of trackpad users, “tracking”?) over the list of words on the right ride.

While there’s nothing here that alters the general point that I’ve been emphasizing here and elsewhere — namely, that “the Enlightenment” was not a formulation that enjoyed much currency until the post-World War II period (and, at some point, we need to consider alternative ways of designating this period:  “Cold War” anyone?).  But what is somewhat more unexpected is the ranking of frequency of the various wildcards that precede “Enlightenment.”  For example,  I would not have thought that “of Enlightenment” beat out “of enlightenment” at some point during the 1990s. Might this be the result of a tendency to turn “Enlightenment” into a general designator for all the mischief allegedly done by “the Enlightenment Project”?

It is also possible to select different names and display only their plots.  Clicking on “Scottish Enlightenment” and “French Enlightenment” helps to clarify when it was that the former became more frequent than the latter (early 1980s, it appears).  It’s also interesting to click on the least frequently appearing phrases on the list, if only to see how formulations such as “his enlightenment” or “general enlightenment”  have been hanging on, at the bottom of the Ngram, since the 1840s (could this be artifact of the continued republication of nineteenth-century novels?).  Finally, highlighting “European Enlightenment” suggests that it was not until the 1980s that those working on the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century found it necessary to distinguish their enlightenment from the Buddhist one.

About James Schmidt

Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science Boston University
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3 Responses to Enlightenment and Ngram Wild Card Searches

  1. Pingback: Fun with Google’s N-Gram Viewer for my C18th students | digitalhumanistbeginner

  2. zjb says:

    thanks for the link. this is the feature Sam Moyn used in The Last Utopia for “human rights,” yes?

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