Elizabeth Weingarten has a piece in Future Tense (“a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate” that “explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture”) on Google’s Ngram Viewer; it doesn’t break any new ground, but it links to some good stuff and presents nice tidbits:
“There are hundreds of little mysteries that one can resolve with the Ngram Viewer,” says Erez Lieberman Aiden, a founding father of the Viewer and the field of Culturomics (which studies human culture and history through the lens of massive datasets) and fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. Take the mystery of donuts vs. doughnuts. When did the spelling change? Before the Ngram Viewer, “it would’ve taken a very long time to determine when that spelling transition took place,” Aiden explains. But according to the Viewer, the donut spelling starts to take off in early 1950s, right around the time Dunkin’ Donuts opened its first store. Of course, it doesn’t prove that Dunkin’ Donuts alone changed the spelling—but it does add a compelling dimension to the story.
I do have to take issue with this: “The Viewer also helps corroborate larger, semantic debates—like, do words actually evolve in the Darwinian sense? … [Researchers] discovered that the verbs did undergo a kind of evolutionary process. ‘The less frequent the verb, the more rapidly it becomes irregular,’ Aiden explains.” Yeah, no. It is impossible for words, or anything non-biological, to evolve in the Darwinian sense. If you insist on using evolution as a metaphor, best to just slip it in there quietly and not try to pin it down as “Darwinian.” Because that just looks silly.