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Literary trends come and go; one year’s vampire is another year’s zombie. According to new research published today in PLOS ONE, certain moods also experience trends in literature. Which moods, or emotions, do you think were popular in the literature of the 20th century?
To find out, researchers created six categories of words to express anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise. These terms were pared down to word stems and then entered into Google’s Ngram Viewer, an immense and interactive database of over 5 million books. The researchers looked at all English language books in Google’s database that were published between 1900 and 2000. Three additional datasets were created to analyze the use of mood words in English fiction (i.e., all books written in British and American English, excluding all works of non-fiction), British English books, and American English books.
Their data indicates that the use of mood words generally decreased in books published in the 20th century. Curiously, the use of words relating to disgust declined the most. The use of fear-related words similarly decreased until the 1970s, when the trend took a sharp turn upwards (and continued to climb for the next three decades). When they plotted the frequency of words relating to joy and sadness, the trend of happy and sad words correlated to major historical events such as World War II and the Great Depression.
In their comparison of books written in British and American English, researchers noted that the frequency of mood words in American English books increased relative to British English books beginning in the 1960s. This trend continued throughout the latter portion of the century, even as the use of mood words generally decreased.
For students of cultural and linguistic evolution, these massive, text-based datasets may present a new way of analyzing trends over a great period of time. For others, they can simply provide a fresh perspective on the previous century!
To learn more and share your thoughts about the study, click here to read the full article. If you are interested in similar studies, click here to read the authors’ research on word usage in climate change science and and here for the accompanying New York Times op-ed.
Acerbi A, Lampos V, Garnett P, Bentley RA (2013) The Expression of Emotions in 20th Century Books. PLoS ONE 8(3): e59030. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059030
The graph comes from Figure 2 of the manuscript.