The Loh Down On Science

Word usage reflects the emotions of our times

Figure 1

Historical periods of positive and negative moods. Values above zero indicate generally "happy" periods, and values below the zero indicate generally "sad" periods. Image courtesy of Acerbi et al., PLOS One, 2013.

What do our books say about us?  Something very disturbing!

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Anthropologists in Britain wondered how word usage, in books, reflects our times.  So they turned to Google's digital library of five million titles.  That’s roughly four percent of all books published in the past few centuries. 

The researchers stuck to twentieth-century books from Britain and the U.S.  They filtered for words expressing six emotions:  Anger, fear, disgust, joy, sadness, and surprise.

Result?  Overall, emotional language in books has decreased over time.  But.  Since the nineteen-sixties American writing has been more emotional than British writing.

Some emotions reflect historical events.  Sad words surged during World War II.  Joyful ones hit a high in the roaring twenties.  From nineteen seventies to now, what emotion has been on the upswing?  Fear!

The researchers caution that the results are open to interpretation.  They’re just words after all.

Very very sad and joyful and terrifying words!

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, with 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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