Thursday, February 16, 2012

Those hip 19th century disco dudes

Playing around with Google's Ngram Viewer, which shows the frequency of words appearing in English-language books scanned onto Google Books since 1500*, I was astonished to see the results for the word 'disco':
As expected, 'disco' shoots up in popularity in the 1970s as the dance music style took off. But see how high it also was in the early 19th century! What disco was exciting people in Napoleon's time?

I pushed ahead with a search in Google Books for the 1800-1808 period and discovered that the 'disco' appearing there seems to be simply the first part of words like 'discourse', 'discover', 'discomfort' or 'discount'. In some cases the 'disco' part is separate because the word was split with a hyphen when it was at the end of a line, with the second half appearing on the next line.

A small disappointment, to think that Wellington and Jefferson were not living in some early age of disco fever! But it's a useful discovery of the limitations of the Ngram Viewer for earlier periods. I guess, though I'm not sure, that words are less often split up as the 19th century progresses, producing less of this confusion.

*As a percentage of all the words appearing in the scanned books at the given period.

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