Google has a fun tool called Ngram Viewer, which counts and compares the relative frequency of words in books they have digitized. This can be a fun way to look at how language changes over time. For example, when did “United States” change from being treated as a plural noun to a singular one? If we type in the search terms: “United States has,United States have,” we get the following graph, showing that most writers changed from treating the United States as a plural entity to a singular one in the late 1870s, although this trend would have been started before and continued after this date.
We can use this tool to look at a variety of things, such as the use of terms connected to the environment, fossil fuels, renewable energy, nuclear energy and more.
The first trend we see is the massive discussion of “soot” during early industrialization. “London Fog” refers to coal smoke, not fog, in the Victorian era. In the 1970s, “smog” becomes king as more people are driving more miles in more cars. By the 1980s, “acid rain” has become a major concern, followed by the “ozone layer” and “deforestation” in the 1990s. Also from the 1980s on, “climate change” and “global warming” grow in importance, the former becoming the preferred term after the mid-1990s (see here for a discussion of the differences between these two terms)
Words related to fossil-fuel use also track along historical trends. Oil, coal and gas are big from the 1800s on, peaking around World War One. Since then, coal has declined in usage–both in actual use and literal use. Gas has also declined somewhat, but oil has hung on through a roller coaster: high again during the Second World War and after the Oil Embargo. Other words associated with fossil fuels, such as “petroleum,” “natural gas,” and “diesel,” have remained relatively flat by comparison.
Nuclear terms first occur with “radiation” as an early scientific principle, along with the discovery of “uranium” just before 1800. To zoom in on trends in the last century, I removed “radiation” from the viewer, as it muted other words by its frequency, but it follows the two patterns: optimistic views of “fission” and “atomic energy” in the 1950s and ’60s contrasted with worry about “fallout” from nuclear war. By the energy crisis of the late 1970s, it had been relabeled “nuclear power,” “fallout” remained a concern, and the term “meltdown” had become more frequent, following the Chernobyl disaster, among others.
Windmills were one of the earliest uses of renewable energy and remain relatively popular through time (if you extend the search range back to the 1600s, it is virtually the only one present). Hydroelectric power peaks in the 1950s, when major construction projects dammed many American water ways. All forms of renewable energy spiked around 1980, following the energy crisis of the 1970s, and for the first time, the terms solar power and photostatic become more frequent.
This tool is fun to play with to look for changes in how we express ourselves about various topics. If you do any searches with notable results, please share them below!