What the Internet Thinks it Knows…

As I sit here playing on the internet, it occurs to me that it has been a long time since I played with Ngram viewer.

But first, what is Ngram and what does it do? Well, its a Google thing. Not being one for computers, I know that it is a bit like a search engine in that Google searches all the online texts that it can – every scanned book, ancient and modern.

You tell it what words or phrases you want to look for, then it presents you with a graph which shows the occurrence of every mention of that word or phrase throughout a particular time period – AD1800-2000 is the default, but it can be extended back further. If you put in more than one search word, Ngram will plot the results together for a proper comparison.

I originally used it, purely for fun, while avoiding an  enormous stack of papers that was required reading in order to write two pages on the Iberian-Atlantic shipbuilding tradition AD1400-1700. Needless to say, at the time I was inputting search terms like ‘treenail’, ‘rising wood’ and ‘futtock’ and other obscure historical shipbuilding terms. I could see the earliest texts that mentioned those words, and their frequency; ‘futtock’ was used with great frequency in the 1760’s, far more than at any other time. Not surprising, really – a lot of naval and nautical books and seaman’s guides were written during that time period. Treenail has a small spike in the 1810’s – although why I have no idea why.

But this time, I stray online with a different vocabulary – commercial fishing, anyone? So here goes…

‘Trawl door’ and ‘otter board’ are two phrases for the same thing, more or less. So which is more popular throughout the last century? Well, it would appear that ‘otter board’ is the clear favourite, with consistently more mentions from 1870 onward. ‘Trawl door’ seems to appears only from 1935 onwards.

‘Beam trawl’, ‘otter trawl’ and ‘bottom trawl’ is another gem; here the words ‘otter trawl’ and ‘midwater have some serious spikes. ‘Bottom trawl’ is the least mentioned – barely present from the 1880’s onwards before gaining a little popularity from 1960. ‘Beam trawl’, surprisingly, appears to gain popularity over the decades. I’m putting that one down to historical interest and research. ‘Otter trawl’ is very popular in the 1930’s and then the 1950’s – although I’m sure that is no surprise.

My favourite is the word ‘pelagic’ versus the word ‘midwater’. ‘Midwater’ has a small yet dedicated occurrence, but ‘pelagic’ is a winner, with this word being far more popular from the 1820’s onwards. Spikes in popularity can be seen in the 1900’s, 1940’s and the 1980’s. It’s nice to see that my research subject seems to be on the up and up!

*Note: Ngram only looks through stuff that is on the internet. The other problem is terms that cross over- searching ‘ship’ will also give you all the results for toys, space ships, naval vessels and so on. Picking obscure or extremely specific terms makes the difference. It also picks up on usage that is relevant, but isn’t – like history books.


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