Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Words We Use: Storytelling, Folktale, Legend, Myth ...

I just scanned all of the books published in the English language since 1800 and counted the number of times the word “stories” appeared in these books. “Stories” has been on the upsurge since 1968 and peaked in 2003! Here's a graph showing the results, year by year:

Note: Apparently the Ngram Viewer graphs are not visible in Internet Explorer. Try Firefox or Chrome.

Of course, you can see that I scanned a number of other words and phrases as well: storytelling, storyteller, folktales, fairy tales, fables, epics, sagas, myths, legends, and tall tales. Since they occur much less frequently than stories, their results are squished. So here's another graph, without stories, so you can see the other results in more detail.

The results are clear: fables are “out,” myths are “in” (peaking in 1997).  Legends peaked in 1879 but are still hanging in there. Sagas, epics, and fairy tales have had a long and fairly consistent history. As for tall tales – well, who would believe anything I said about tall tales anyway. (After all, I'm writing this on April Fool's Day.)

There appear to be some interesting trends since about 1920 with storyteller and storytelling, so let's take a closer look.

There appears to be steady, slow growth in the appearance of these words between 1930 and 1970 when their use started an upsurge. In 1978 storytelling overtook storyteller and continued to grow at a faster rate. Storyteller peaked in 1996 and has declined since. Storytelling peaked in 2003 and declined slightly since. I wonder if the difference in the use of storytelling and storyteller has significance.

To tell you the truth, I might have misled you by saying “I just scanned all of the books published in the English language since 1800 … ” The truth is, I used the Google Books Ngram Viewer. Indeed, you can quickly perform this analysis for any words or phrases you choose – in English (American, British, or All) Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Spanish, Russian, or Italian.
For more information about the underlying data and how to perform this analysis visit the Google Books Ngram Viewer. Please let me know if you find some interesting results.

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