Around 1967, “Television” Became More Popular Than the “Bible”

Is anyone getting any writing or scholarship done today at all? The new Google tool for graphing the frequency of words in a mass sample of published matter over time is the most compelling linguistic-cultural toy since the Baby Name Wizard’s NameVoyager . Only it offers so many, many more things besides babies to be evaluative and/or judgmental about.

The example the page was loaded with this morning—graphing “tofu” vs. “hot dog” over time—was the perfect bait: clever-ish and sort of meaningful (in the early ‘80s, “tofu” rockets up to surpass old-fashioned “hot dog,” natch), but also a little bit dumb, like a David Brooks column. The temptation to try to come up with something similar, but better, is irresistible. How about “futon” vs. “davenport” ? (How and why was “futon” appearing in American English at all in 1900?)

And when did “sneakers” beat out “tennis shoes”? About 1939 , in American English, looks like. Around that same time, “sofa,” which had been chasing “couch” for more than a century, caught and briefly surpassed it—only to fall behind again by 1960.

The words “football” and “baseball” both surpass “boxing” by 1900 , and “rowing” by 1910, then spend the rest of the century vying to see which one can rise faster (while “basketball” rides along in their wake). “Liberace” passed “Jonas Salk” in the early ‘80s, on his way to a nearly decade-long peak. Use of “tractor” caught up with “mule” around 1950 , followed by their mutual decline. (Meanwhile, “tractor beam” caught up with the relatively more established “ray gun” around 1990 .)

In 1994, “global warming”—almost unmeasurable 10 years earlier— crossed paths with, and seemingly supplanted, the once-formidable “nuclear war.”

In the 1880s, “government” moved ahead of the declining “church,” apparently to stay.

And yes, somewhere around 1967, “television” surpassed “Bible” in America.

[UPDATE: Here’s a timeline of more results , from “marble” vs. “concrete” to “lager” vs. “latte.”]