May 2018

I was recently reminded of a trip I took at this time of year 6 years ago, by a document I produced for my children whilst I was away. Ollie was only 3 at the time and Miriam was 7, so for the few days that I was in New Jersey, I sent them lots of pictures and explanation of this strange country called ‘America’. Here is an excerpt to give you a flavour of the sort of highbrow travel writing to which my offspring have become accustomed: 

New York New York has some amazing buildings. One of them is the Empire State building which is very big and very beautiful. Another one is called the “Flatiron” because it looks like you should do the ironing with it. There is another building that is not as tall but is the world’s biggest shop. In America they say store, but they mean shop. Daddy went in and bought a pair of pants (the shop is so big that it has a whole floor just selling men’s pants and socks) and some jeans (which the American’s call pants which is funny) because they were on sale and he got a special discount for not being from America. The man asked where Daddy was staying, I said I was in “America’s Best Value Inn” but he had never heard of that, so he said he would put Daddy down as staying in a smart hotel where important people stay! The food here is really interesting. For my lunch, I had a sandwich with more meat in it that you could get from a whole animal…

It was a wonderful trip. I was in the States, because I had the very unexpected honour of being invited to speak at a Google in Education conference at a University in New Jersey. I think someone had dropped out at the last minute.

I did my specialist session on day two of the conference to a largely empty room. There were other, more interesting seminars on offer. On the last day of the conference though, I got another unexpected opportunity. The conference organisers put on a “Demo Slam” as the final plenary session and they offered me a slot. Well, I had no idea what they were talking about, but audentes fortuna iuvat as Bertie Wooster would say, so I agreed. 

It turns out that I had committed myself to a 3-minute presentation on something that could be done with the many tools that Google had to offer. Thankfully there was something I had used in the early days of developing my PhD thesis that fitted the bill. So, I took the stage, blinked in the lights, apologised for my accent, and ploughed on. 

The tool I chose to speak about was Google Ngrams. This is rather less well known than many of Google’s offerings, such a Translate or Maps, so I reckoned it might at least be new for some of them. If it’s new for you, let me explain…briefly. Google had by this point digitised somewhere over a third of everything that had ever been published in English since the Seventeenth Century. The Ngram search allows you to search the data they have about those publications en masse. Amazingly this means that you can see, for instance, how frequently a word appears relative to other words, and it will plot a graph. The team that worked on the project used it, for instance, to demonstrate the effects of chilling free speech. In German literature, for instance, the name Mendelssohn appeared fairly frequently before the rise of the Nazi party and then for a period vanished almost entirely from the printed page.  

My demonstration to the conference was of rather less significance. As I was in the USA, it seemed only right to give our colonial cousin a spelling lesson. We therefore explored together the spelling of the words: honour, colour, behaviour, neighbour, and theatre and compared the correct spellings with the American ones (my exact words). Up came the graph for use of the British spellings versus American between 1800 and 2000, and amazingly all the lines crossed at around the same point. “So there you have it ladies and gentlemen, the 1stof October 1891, the day the English language died.” My hope is that with beard, they won’t recognise me if I ever go back!

Reminiscing on that trip, I have been mulling over this question. What will a google Ngram search reveal about the days in which we live? What words are missing from our vocabulary? What do we talk about with unusual frequency? What might such observations reveal about us as people and as a society? I wonder too, what I would think if I could see my own use of words in similar form? How often does the word “I” appear in my conversation, or the words “me”, “my” and “mine”? Jesus said that “from the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks”. That, for me, can be a rather uncomfortable reflection, but I suspect it’s a necessary one.