The Economist has a Q&A with Geoffrey Nunberg in which the linguist discusses things he’s learned “by using big data techniques like Google’s Ngram viewer to analyse the word usage and track how language evolves”:

“Words don’t fly individually—they fly in flocks,” says Geoffrey Nunberg of the University of California Berkeley’s School of Information in an on-stage interview with Jeff Hammerbacher, a big-data engineer and the co-founder of Cloudera, during The Economist’s Ideas Economy: Information 2012 conference on June 5th in San Francisco (full video above).
As he explains it, society sees concepts emerge and dissipate over time, reflecting people’s views. So groups of words like “yuppie” and “sensitive type” and “sense of entitlement” all appear (and go out of favour) at roughly the same time, just as the dawn of the 19th century saw the birth of the “-isms” like liberalism and socialism and the rest.

For more on Ngrams, see this LH post.


  1. “WORDS don’t fly individually—they fly in flocks”
    That notion itself is everywhere nowadays, like flocked wallpaper in the 60s in America. For a less beautiful take, think of swarms of mosquitoes and ants.
    As he explains it, society sees concepts emerge and dissipate over time, reflecting people’s views.
    Is this news ?? If it is, what did people think before being brought up to date on the subject ? Did they believe that concepts and knowledge accumulated, leading to progress ?

  2. The Whigs ye have always with you.

  3. This is a fine how d’ye do. Are you switching over to the constructivist camp ?
    In that interview, Nunberg barely brushes the conceptual issues that Luhmann, Nassehi etc. have treated extensively and in detail. He uses all the fashionable words, but what more can one expect from a brief talk with an IT guppie ? He can’t be all bad, though, to judge from his remark that linguists are like bats in caves, and that Facebook users “swim around in a social custard”.

  4. My search – “The Whigs ye have always with you” – did not match any documents.

  5. That’s because it’s not the actual quotation. The actual quotation involves Jesus casting demons out who then enter a flock of Whigs and plunge over a cliff.

  6. Thanks. Is it a true story?

  7. J.W. Brewer says:

    In the actual interview he asserts that “yuppie” and “narcissism” arose together which . . . seems inconsistent with a quick glance at the ngram viewer. “Sense of entitlement” may have gotten into vogue at approx the same time as yuppie (again per the ngram viewer) but “sensitive type” seems to have had a modest mid-century vogue decades before yuppies were identified.
    More generally, assume one found a word or phrase that came into vogue around 1930 and went out of vogue around 1960. It probably wouldn’t be too hard now that we have cool corpora to search to find other words/phrases with the same life-cycle. But I expect it would also not be hard to find words/phrases that came into vogue around 1930 but dropped out of vogue by 1940, or lasted until 1980, or have lasted even unto this present day. I’m not sure we even have the tools yet to think about what would be a meaningful pattern and what just coincidence, at least outside of situations where it’s easy to figure out or confirm from independent historical data that people started talking more or talking less about subject matter X at such and such time, such that all lexical items particular to that subject matter would be likely to rise or fall accordingly.

  8. This is one of those things that I think a lot of us had subconsciously noticed but never consciously realized. Fascinating, and you’re absolutely right. Words that are:
    A) Related, and
    B) Popular at the same time
    tend to go in and out of style together, they travel in flocks, absolutely. The “-isms” as you said, the politically correct stuff from the 90s and terms like “soccer mom” and “stay-at-home dad”, terms from the 50s like “tall, dark, and handsome” and “hussie” and “fast” (referring to a girl being ‘fast’ in how quickly she moved things along sexually, that is she was ‘easy’–not a compliment, generally), etc.
    Very cool, thanks for posting that.

  9. I’m not sure we even have the tools yet to think about what would be a meaningful pattern and what just coincidence
    Yes, this is a problem, but at least we’re getting more resources with which to tackle it.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Andrew: This meaning of fast is far older than the fifties. I remember only one sentence from The Education of Henry Adams, by Henry Adams himself (the most boring writer I have ever run into): commenting about the unglamorous official dinners at the White House circa 1850-60 (he was the grandson and great-grandson of presidents) he writes: If a woman was well-dressed she was either a foreigner or fast.

  11. dearieme says:

    The old joke was that you could lose a lot of money on slow horses and fast women.

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