I first wrote about Google's Ngram Viewer in 2011, not too long after it became available to the public, allowing the easy creation of graphs tracking the fate of words in the Google Books corpus. Since then, Google has added several improvements and enhancements, the most recent of which is support for wild cards, which the VT's Ben Zimmer wrote about in the Atlantic a couple of months ago. One of the great advantages of wildcard search, as Ben noted, is to "encourage more nuanced searching, instead of simply running the numbers on individual words and phrases devoid of context." Wildcard searching makes it much easier to monitor the collocational behavior of words over time and to gauge how usage influences meaning.

Here's a case in point: I was driving the other day and I saw beside me a service van emblazoned with the name of the company, "Legacy Plumbing." My immediate thought was: they only work on old buildings? And I realized that my take on legacy has changed a lot from what it used to be. When I see legacy in front of a noun now, I think of antiquated systems that persist because of inertia or some other prohibitive factor against replacing them: as in legacy software, legacy applications, legacy carrier (that is, an airline encumbered with long-standing, costly business practices that newer carriers have never adopted). I looked at the legacy + noun combination in the Ngram Viewer and it bore out my associations pretty well:

The frequent and sharply rising noun collocations of legacy today represent the modern development of the meaning of legacy, which has been considerably stretched from the original — perhaps in an attempt to put the most positive possible spin on the notion of "obsolescent." The legacy of the past, when the word's main usage was as a synonym of bequest, is represented by several moribund collocations that seem to have peaked in the late 19th century, such as legacy duty, legacy tax, and legacy hunter.

This is not to say that legacy has lost its core meaning: hardly anyone today would turn down a legacy if offered one, and many may aspire to leave an enduring legacy in their field of influence. You can still probably find a complex called the "Legacy Apartments" in nearly every American city, and many long-established businesses still use the word as a part of their tradename. But a circumspect entrepreneur today would surely avoid incorporating the word into a place or business name, because it has become tainted with undesirable associations.

One way to think about this kind of shift in meaning is to view it as a species of lexical apostasy, a concept I talked about a couple of years ago in relation to changing usage of the words shtick and gay. The idea is that popular usage of a word very strongly colors people's associations with it, and if the new associations are sharply contrastive with the older ones, the older ones may eventually fall away, or  be seriously compromised. The historical graph for gay + NOUN bears this out very strongly:

Starting in the 1970s, "gay men," and secondarily, "gay people" so overtook the earlier meanings of gay as to render them inoperative. The graph shows that there was indeed a "gay world" in 1800, but it was surely not the "gay world" that you evoke today when you use the term. As further evidence of the death of the old gay, Hallmark is this year marketing a Christmas ornament on which they have retrofittted new lyrics to the carol "Deck the Halls" to avoid use of the word gay. Gay apparel is simply not what it used to be!

Another way to think about the evolution of word meaning is to start from a somewhat heretical position and declare that words don't actually have inherently fixed, distinguishable senses. Instead, word usages evoke qualia, and every word has, within its semantic space, a connection with a different and often unique constellation of qualia. I talked about this a little in the Lounge a couple of months ago in a discussion about the word premium, in which I noted that the qualia of premium include scarcity, superior quality, preference, payment, and reward.

So it works like this: when you use a word, the context in which you use it calls to the minds of your readers and listeners, potentially, all of the qualia associated with that word. But every word usage, because of the constraints of context, necessarily draws more heavily on one quale or another, or on a particular collection of qualia rather than others. When a sizeable or influential group of speakers or writers begins to use a word overwhelmingly in a particular way that evokes a particular pattern of associations, they effectively shift the default denotation of that word to a different locus in its semantic space, where the baseline influence of each quale is different from what it was before.

The Ngram Viewer is a very powerful tool for observing these kinds of shifts over time. Here's another example, a graph that illustrates the dilution of the semantic force of an adjective, illustrated by phrases in which a noun is preceded by passionate about:

Before the 20th century, it seems that it was unusual for anyone to declare that they were passionate about anything. The spike in usage from 1870 to a bit after 1880 is in fact the phrase passionate about nothing. Starting in the 20th century, however, being passionate about something comes into fashion, and starting in the 1980s, declarations about passionateness all begin sharp ascents. Anyone at large in the Anglophone world today knows that it is now ordinary to declare that you are passionate about something. Does the phrase really mean anything particular? Are feelings so much more intense and focused today on aspects of our lives than they were for our Victorian counterparts? Probably not: we have simply diluted the strength of passion and passionate by using them as substitutes for words akin to enthusiasm, interest, or eagerness.

If you look at the graph for "*_ADJ silence," you'll see a historical snapshot of collocations in which silence is preceded by an adjective. It suggests that silences, once frequently deemed to be profound, are hardly ever thought of that way today. Silences now are more and more often characterized as just being long.  Another interesting graph, called up with the search "feel *_ADJ" shows collocations of the verb feel followed by an adjective. It suggests that "feeling sure" peaked around the turn of the 20th century. Since then, the trend has been simply towards feeling good and feeling better.

Have declarations of passion supplanted profound silences? Has that made us less concerned about feeling sure and more focused on feeling good? There is surely a danger in playing armchair sociologist on the basis of a few datapoints but the Ngram Viewer provides an inexhaustible trove of material for understanding the ways that speakers and writers impart influential nuances to the connotations of words over time. The legacy of any particular word is subject to the whims of the people who use it.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday December 2nd 2013, 1:46 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Nice! You might ask for an author byline on this piece. :-)

[Byline restored! —Ed.]
Monday December 2nd 2013, 9:34 AM
Comment by: Jill K.
You take a subject I might be only marginally interested in, and bring relevance to it. Great wrap-up! Thanks.
Monday December 2nd 2013, 1:30 PM
Comment by: Barry F.
Good reminder that following the use of a word doesn't ipso facto make us expert sociologists, but it does prove that we constantly need to be aware and responsible for better understanding our culture. Depends on who we want to influence...
Monday December 2nd 2013, 4:40 PM
Comment by: Will Stott
Dear Mr. Hargrave,
Thank you for a thoughtful, and wonderfully provocative, essay. The heresies and apostacies you allude to are the stuff of poetry and the play of musement, more generally; they are also the tenets of Humpty Dumpy's philosophy!

I appreciate your suggestions for ways to use the N-gram Viewer, in particular, as I've only recently begun to explore the capacities of this extraordinary tool. But you do more than merely instruct your reader on technical tricks of your trade; you put the results of an exercise to wonderful, suggestive use in your conclusion.

Again, thank you.

Tuesday December 3rd 2013, 3:50 PM
Comment by: Richard S.
I, too, thought I would be only marginally interested in the topic, but you, Orin, made it intriguing and inspiring. Thank you.

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