Using Google Ngram Viewer for historical fiction and historical fantasy

Google Ngram Viewer is one of the writing tools I turn to often when writing a story with a historical setting. This tool searches Google’s vast collection of online books (5 million plus) for the words or phrases you enter and graphs the frequency that the word appears in print. Since it’s searching printed books, it’s pretty sparse when dealing with the Renaissance or Early Modern era, but if you’re into the Regency and Victorian periods, it’s a great help. It does have some options for foreign language books as well.

For instance, during the Victorian period, the cravat of Regency fame evolved into a close relative of our modern necktie. When I’m describing my male character’s clothing, though, I don’t want to say necktie, because that will give my modern readers the wrong mental image (especially if they picture colorful modern ties). On the other hand, I don’t want to call it a cravat if that’s not what the Victorians would have said. So, I went to Google’s Ngram Viewer:

https://books.google.com/ngrams

I entered “cravat” and “necktie,” separated by commas, so they would appear on the same graph. It told me the word “necktie” first appeared in print in the late 1850s, but “cravat” continued to dominate literature until after 1900.

There are some things to be aware of with Google Ngram Viewer. “Cravat” still appears frequently in modern books, almost as often as “necktie.” Why? Because we love Regency and Victorian novels. Not many people would say cravat now–most of us would even say tie instead of necktie–but the word still appears in print because of historical fiction. Still, given the dominance of “cravat” in literature through the end of the Victorian period, I feel pretty safe assuming it was still being used to refer to contemporary Victorian fashion. (Also, it was the word I wanted to use to keep my historical flavor, so I’m prejudiced in its favor.)

Another thing to remember with Google Ngram Viewer is it doesn’t understand the evolution of a word’s meaning; it just tells you if a word was used in print. So, the word “lover” appears more frequently in Victorian literature than in modern, according to the Ngram Viewer. Don’t let this overthrow your ideas of Victorian propriety–they used “lover” to mean a suitor or romantic interest, not necessarily to imply physical intimacy as it would today. In Pride and Prejudice, when Mr. Bennett says Wickham, “… simpers, and smirks, andmakes love to us all,” he certainly doesn’t mean it in the modern sense! This is where a good dictionary that includes archaic meanings comes in handy for the writer, and where readers might need context clues to make sure they understand how you’re using the word (and some words you just can’t use–they’ve acquired too much baggage over the years).

Google Ngram Viewer won’t solve all your historical word choice dilemmas, but it can help you determine if a word is appropriate for setting the right tone for your historical fiction or fantasy. It’s also a fun way to waste time when you’re supposed to be writing, and you can call it research.

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