Home > Current, Discourse, Language > It is Time to Believe Again

It is Time to Believe Again

Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).

To write many words here would defeat the purpose of this post, which is to highlight the expansion in our popular discourse of both the use of extreme descriptors and their likely associated increasing application to mundane subjects. I am not a brilliant sociologist, so I am not sure exactly why everything is so incredibly incredible these days, although I suspect some of the concepts surrounding the notion of the attention economy (e.g., our increasingly-difficult-to-satisfy need for other people to pay attention to us) may be helpful in answering that question.

Whether this is happening, though, is a more readily answerable question, I think. While the NSA still isn’t releasing searchable transcripts for all of our written and verbal conversations, we do have some proxies. One is the Google Ngram viewer, which allows a variety of queries from the text of all of the books Google has scanned into its system. Another is Chronicle, which allows similar searches of the text of the New York Times. Some results from both sources:




These are incredible times indeed.

Please feel free to share the results of your own queries and suggest your own hypotheses or explanations in the comment section below.

Categories: Current, Discourse, Language
  1. AD
    August 31, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    Although not yet to the same degree as we did 150 years ago, we also have an increasingly high opinion of the relative intelligence of our subjects: http://chronicle.nytlabs.com/?keyword=genius.brilliant.

  2. Babs
    September 1, 2015 at 11:53 am

    Check out “White genocide” and then “holocaust” White genocide is a flat line, unbelievable. http://chronicle.nytlabs.com/?keyword=white%20genocide

  3. September 1, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    I searched, “amazing,incredible,incredibly” on the nyt and google ngram (which searches books) and found quite different results. In the NYT all three started rising in the 70s and 80s at about the same time and about the same rate. In books, however, the results are quite different. First, “amazing” has a bizarre behavior that is worth looking at. And incredible behaves very different from incredibly – incredible is generally decreasing over the last two hundred years.

    I have also noticed a small turn around in all of these words of the last few years. This could be for any number of boring reasons (smoothing over a smaller amount of time, statistical fluctuations, different words with the same meanings taking over their roles, etc.), but it could also be a backlash against what you described in your post – an overdose of excitement. I don’t think that this is the case and would guess that it is one of the more boring reason. It will be interesting to see in fifty years if these trends continue.

    As an additional note, my selection rationale for these three words was a) I thought that you had used incredible instead of incredibly and typed that in, I added incredibly after being confused why my graphs looked different, and b) I felt that amazing goes naturally in this context. Note that adding “amazingly” has the same bump as amazing.

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