File Under: Both Completely Predictable and Kind of Weird

By Harriet Staff

While we're not 100% sure we even understand this story, it's interesting enough to note, and perhaps some of you readers out there will be smarter than us. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, scholars at Harvard have "quantified cultural trends by investigating the frequency with which words appeared over time in a database of about 5.2 million books, roughly 4 percent of all volumes ever published." Ha! You didn't even know that cultural trends could be quantified, did you!? Well you were wrong! Everything is quantifiable. The whole of human existence is just one big internet, like the planet in Avatar or the world of Tron: Lebowski. Anyway, here are some of the team's findings:

* The English lexicon grew by 70 percent from 1950 to 2000, with roughly 8,500 new words entering the language each year. Dictionaries don't reflect a lot of those words. "We estimated that 52 percent of the English lexicon—the majority of the words used in English books—consists of lexical 'dark matter' undocumented in standard references," the authors write.
* Researchers tracked references to individual years to demonstrate how humanity is forgetting its past more quickly. Take "1880": It took 32 years, until 1912, for references to that year to fall by half. But references to "1973" fell by half within 10 years.
* Compared with their 19th-century counterparts, modern celebrities are younger and more well known—but their time in the limelight is shorter. Celebrities born in 1800 initially achieved fame at an average age of 43, compared with 29 for celebrities born in 1950.
* Mining the data set can yield insights into the effects of censorship and propaganda. The authors give the example of the Jewish artist Marc Chagall. His name comes up only once in the German corpus during the Nazi era, even as he became increasingly prominent in English-language books.

Originally Published: December 21st, 2010