Writing Tip of the Prose (Ha Ha) # 2459 –  Google Ngram Viewer

I recently posted a couple of paragraphs of an in-progress short story for online critique and received some interesting comments back. One reader found it weird that my early thirties POV character used the word “philandering” and the phrase “grassy knoll.”

I’m still not sure what to make of that. One thought: is “grassy knoll” too associated with JFK conspiracists who argue a shooter standing on a grassy knoll shot President Kennedy as his motorcade passed?

Still, these words seem commonplace enough to me. 

This, I felt, was a job for the Google Ngram viewer. This data tool tracks word usage in a wide collection of books from the past until now. For example, if you type in “Lewinsky” (to use another Presidential example) you’ll see nothing until the late 90s when usage skyrockets.

My thinking was I could track usage of these words my reader contested and determine if there’s been a recent drop such that a thirty-something would avoid them. 

What did I find? “Philandering” rose quite a bit from 1980 to 2013 or so, but has dropped since then. (Maybe the rise of open relationships has given the term a negative color?) “Grassy knoll” had a steep incline starting in 1985 or so (Oliver Stone’s “JFK” movie came out in 1991 and I assume there was a groundswell of interest in the conspiracy before that) but it also declined around 2013. (I would guess new conspiracies overtook it.)

So what to do with this? If I replace these words, with what? Well, “philandering” could be swapped with “two-timing” (though that word sounds dated even to my ears, like an utterance from a gangster’s moll in a 1930s film.) According to Ngram, that word also falls off around 2013. (At that point, I got suspicious of how common that was, but found plenty of terms like “Trump” and “QAnon” rise until today.) Another “philandering” replacement might be “cheating”. It’s risen at varying rates from the 1940s onward, but it’s also too general as it can apply to math tests, football games etc. “Philandering” is nice and specific.

Truthfully, I’m still thinking through what I’ll take away from this. I’m tempted to keep “philandering”*, but maybe “grassy knoll” is a bit dated (and its use in my story has nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination; it’s just referring to a grassy hill.)

* Just don’t tell my wife!

Nonetheless, the Ngram viewer, used with the appropriate amount of skepticism, can be a handy tool (especially if you are writing a period piece.)

And you can use it to find all sorts of interesting trends. For instance, “sock darning” rose from 1900 to 1950 (as one might expect), then dropped precipitously. But it has slowly risen from about 2000 on

What could cause the return of interest in mending socks?

Nothing good, no doubt!

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