What were the cultural keywords when you were born?

22 Nov

Raymond Williams published a fascinating (and often-cited) book called Keywords (first in the 70s, then an update in the 80s). It’s full of really interesting stuff (my notes are here). But Williams’ words were just sort of the ones he saw flying around and took an interest in. This post gives you something a little more “scientific”.

David Beaven (University of Glasgow) has put together a really neat page of “keywords” from the Google Books ngram corpus. Go find out what your birth year was like:


(There are two options–year by year or five-year clumps.)

Basically, he’s figuring out what words are occurring in, say, a five year time block much more often than they appear elsewhere. So 1940-1944 is characterized by WWII:

1940‑1944: nazi hitler aircraft planes grid tanks radio germans vitamin propaganda aluminum voltage automobile orchestra pilot gear altitude civilian coil polish roosevelt poland rubber outstanding vocational

Books in the first half of the 60’s talked a lot about the Cold War:

1960‑1964: communist communists eq shri communism ussr electrons ml atomic soviet electron radiation equations scattering amino amplitude ions nuclear frequencies rs equation pakistan coefficients approximation momentum

The most recent group shows business and Internet and a continued interest in gender:

2000‑2004: web global gender options software uk user strategies phone networks users kids gene eds humans focused implementation com option files network typically asian environmental button

You can click on the links to see the 25 years around the “peaks”, but you should really go do it from David’s site since it gives more options (and since this post is just a tiny sampling of what his site offers).


One Response to “What were the cultural keywords when you were born?”

  1. vocalised November 24, 2011 at 10:47 am #

    Thanks for posting about this, Tyler! I’ve been thinking about keywords a lot lately, and these are really useful links. Blog on!

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