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They’re Talking About Us (Still) (Again) (Always)

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 21, 2010

The new Google Books Ngram Viewer is creating a corporal’s guard of amateur Ziffs in the Bloggernacle: This program allows users to choose any word or phrase, searches vast database of texts in Google Books, and plots a graph showing how often that word or phrase appears in texts across time (adjusted, apparently, for the number of books in that database published in each year). J. Max Wilson compares the occurrence of the name “Joseph Smith” to the occurrence for other prominent figures; Kent Larsen discovers an unexplained 1928 spike in the appearance of the term “Mormon fiction.”

Ever willing to jump on bandwagons and fads (unless they involve politics, cilantro, or Justin Bieber), here’s Keepa’s own foray into the wonders of statistics, computer programs, and other deep and dark mysteries:

First, I notice that Mormons are talked about. A lot. No more now, though, than in the past, and perhaps even a little lesson often than in the past:

Throwing in a pretty graph to include not only Mormon, but Mormons and Mormonism tracks pretty much the same: the publishing world talked about us a lot at times when we were considered troublesome (say, in our earliest days, at the time of the Utah War, after the railroad was completed and the Gentile world was getting its first easy look at Deseret society, and during the 1880s polygamy raid years. As each crisis passed, interest in us dropped sharply, to spike again at the next crisis. (I wonder how high the spikes would be if newspaper coverage were included?) We haven’t been especially controversial in the 20th century – there’s a small spike that might represent publicity during the centennial of the pioneer exodus, but otherwise our profile is rather smooth and unremarkable.

Latter Day Saints (the correct capitalization/punctuation doesn’t work) appears much less often:

I wondered, naturally, what they were saying, and take some guesses:

Joseph Smith is a natural candidate.

J. Max Wilson’s post is a much more complex comparison of Joseph Smith with his contemporaries; since he has that covered, I’ll just throw in a couple of silly comparisons.

Frequency of Joseph Smith compared to Mark Twain:

Frequency of Joseph Smith compared to Billy Graham:

And, ahem, note that Ardis (just my name, not me – I’m not that old) eclipses Joseph Smith for one brief moment:

Brigham Young, unsurprisingly, gets steady coverage during his controversial presidency and its aftermath. After a sharp falling away in attention, he has apparently gained slow but steadily increasing attention:

While not every reference to polygamy necessarily refers to the Mormon marriage system, there is naturally a mountain of references during the decades this practice caused such heartburn to the nation:

Among other expected sensational terms, we have the Danites:

and Porter Rockwell:

and the Mountain Meadows Massacre:

Note that the graph shows a gradually falling off of the more frequently used earlier term: Mountain Meadow Massacre (singular Meadow) in favor of the current term Mountain Meadows Massacre (plural Meadows). If you play around with the Ngram Viewer yourself, try to sweep in all the various ways an event or person has been labeled in order not to miss a significant number of references. J. Max Wilson talks about the difficult of doing this with variations like Joe Smith.

A popular old phrase, Mormon menace, gets its due during exactly the period you would expect:

And while we might at first assume discussion of the Mormon priesthood would be a positive thing, given the period during which it was most discussed, we have to assume much of the discussion was of the priesthood as a cultish, controlling, secretive evil:

The Book of Mormon has had steady attention:

For perspective, note how much less frequently the Book of Mormon is mentioned than is the Koran (of course, this does not include Qu’ran or other variations):

And lest we start thinking we’re “some pumpkins” (a favorite term of Brigham Young’s for thinking unnecessarily highly of oneself), compare the frequency of Book of Mormon to Bible:

I’ve wondered about our use of the term Holy Ghost where much of the rest of the Christian world uses Holy Spirit or some similar variant. Our Ghost sounds so antiquated – I’ve wondered if it, and other parts of our vocabulary, merely reflect the popular usage of the 1830s, which we have conservatively retained while the rest of the world has adapted to new vocabulary. At first glance, the graph for Holy Ghost would seem to suggest that my hypothesis about the label’s decline in popularity might be true:

But when you throw Holy Spirit into the mix, I realize that the dramatic downward trend for Holy Ghost reflects not a change in vocabulary, but a dramatic overall downward trend in references to that member of the Godhead:

Still, this ability to track usage over time suggests some interesting avenues of investigation for people whose theoretical and statistical skills are stronger than mine. Note, for instance, how the graph shows a shift from Temple Block to Temple Square:

And to wrap up, some miscellaneous terms that may indicate some shifts in relative interest to various Mormon subjects:

Brigham Young University:

Word of Wisdom (not a strictly Mormon term, so this graph may be misleading):

Mormon pioneers:

Mormon missionaries (like Mormon priesthood, given the relatively high interest in this term during the era of our greatest legal troubles, I have to suspect that much of the discussion was not flattering, but was a perception of our grandfathers as evil, sneaking, conniving agents of a nefarious power):

Mormon Tabernacle Choir:

Angel Moroni:

Salt Lake Temple:

If you’ve played around with the Ngram Viewer, what do you find of interest? If you have a graph that really seems to say something about us, let’s put it up here. (You can’t add illustrations to comments, but if you email your graphs, or just comment on what search terms you used, I may be able to add a few graphs to your comments.)



6 Comments »

  1. Neat stuff. I have heard about this Google project on NPR, but haven’t had the chance to play around with it. Now I’m motivated.

    Comment by kevinf — December 21, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

  2. Fascinating. Thanks for taking the time to post this, Ardis. I’ve spent a lot of time in the expanding online newspaper archives. I didn’t know that there was such widespread interest in Utah and news from there in the late 1880s during the Raid years.

    Comment by Phoebe — December 21, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

  3. One thing I noticed with your graphs is how most religious terms seem to have a general falling off (Holy Ghost, Holy Spirit, Koran, Bible). I would predict similar trends for other religious terms. My guess is it’s due not so much to people not printing as much about religion or a particular religion, but (with the ease of publishing greatly increasing) due to books on other subjects being published much more than they were 200 years ago. Now I’ll have to go play some, too.

    Comment by Vada — December 21, 2010 @ 7:56 pm

  4. Awesome, Ardis!

    I find the Holy Ghost/Holy Spirit figure interesting, particularly that “Holy Spirit” has experienced a revival (ha ha) of late (post WWII). I’m sure someone who actually knows about religious trends in that time frame can explain this by reference to an increase in membership of Pentecostal churches or something.

    Comment by Ziff — December 21, 2010 @ 9:29 pm

  5. This could be way too much fun to play with. I’ve enjoyed the posts y’all have done so far. I went and fiddled and was interested to see what didn’t show up at all!

    Comment by michelle — December 22, 2010 @ 2:24 am

  6. Why does Porter Rockwell get such a spike in the Depression years?

    Comment by jeans — December 22, 2010 @ 6:19 am

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