Image courtesy of Google Ngrams. Image courtesy of Google Ngrams.

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

It isn’t all that often that a new analytical tool becomes available, particularly one that is (1) easy to use and understand, (2) available everywhere there’s an internet connection, (3) free, and (4) acceptable for use in scholarly circles.  That’s the power of Google’s Ngram Viewer.

To provide a very brief background, multiple authors coined the term “culturomics” in a 2011 Science article, which they described as a “quantitative analysis of culture.”  Essentially, Google has been scanning as many books as they can get their hands on, which by 2011 was roughly 4% of all the books ever printed. Google Ngram enables users to search all these books for desired words or terms.  A more full (yet still succinct) description can be found in an offshoot TED talk, “What we Learned from 5 Million Books.” The two lead authors also wrote a book.

How does it work? For example, if you want to know the prevalence of the word “war,” you could conduct a search for this word.  I have done so above – in relation to the word “peace.”  We can see that “war” has always been on the mind and in the pens of writers more than “peace.” That is, at least, in our sample of what has now advanced to approximately 6% of all the books in recorded history.

There are, of course, other great uses for this tool – like resolving the conflict between Clausewitz and Jomini – who held more sway – and when?

Image courtesy of Google Ngrams. Image courtesy of Google Ngrams.

Or peaks and valleys in thinking on counterinsurgency (note the search for separate cases, which can skew results if one is not too careful).

Image courtesy of Google Ngrams. Image courtesy of Google Ngrams.

And, perhaps my favorite – a search that highlights the inflection point we find the US Air Force at – the fighter pilot, by this measure, is losing to the UAV (and that’s a fair fight; the comparison becomes a landslide if we use the common term “drone“).

Image courtesy of Google Ngrams. Image courtesy of Google Ngrams.


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