The eggheads at Google have done it again. After aggregating and digitizing more than 5.2 million books containing more than 500 billion words, they have unleashed a massive and searchable database of words used in those published works: the Google’s Book Ngram Viewer.
As you probably know, I’m a sucker for data-mining: Declining Internet Interest for â€?Bahaâ€™iâ€?. That was keeping track of the relative popularity of search incidents for the keyword “bahai”.
This new tool from Google is equally fascinating but it provides a different perspective. Whereas the previous one is a reflection of our modern times and our penchant for using google as a search engine to find answers on the internet, this new tool allows us to look at the usage frequency of certain words throughout history in published books.
Of course, I immediately typed in “Bahai” to see what it would show. Keep in mind that it is very sensitive to alternative spellings. So the word “Bahai” that I used will produce different results than the word “Baha’i” or the word “bahai” or “baha’i”. In the end, I chose to show you the graph for the word “Bahai” because it has the most frequent usage in Google’s database.
Take a look at the graph and see if you notice the same things that I did:
The first ‘bump’ is 1850 which is right around the time of the Babi movement in Iran, which then morphed into the Baha’i Faith. It is surprising to see such an immediate – albeit relatively small – reaction from the English press to this event halfway around the world. But then again, orientalists like E.G. Browne were deeply interested in the movement.
There is a clear spike between 1911 and 1918 (approximately). The line is smoothed with a smoothing coefficient of 3 – a setting which can be changed in the Ngram control panel. If you reduce the smoothing coefficient, there are two distinct spikes, one for 1915 and the other for 1919.
Knowing that Abdu’l-Baha’s visit to the West took place between 1911 and 1913 provides a simple explanation for this sudden increase in exposure. And providing that we give a few years lag time for research and publication we have a very neat match for this sharp increase in the prevalence of the usage of the word “Bahai” in English books.
The second spike occurs a few decades later between 1944 and 1946. What might account for it? My hunch is that it is the outbreak of World War II and the inevitable soul searching that occurred in reaction to the horrific tragedy that is war.
The other standout years are 1973 and 1982. I’m not sure what 1973 corresponds to but 1982 would probably be explained by the Islamic revolution of Iran and the systemic persecution of Baha’is – which continues to this day.
Here is the same graph restricted to “British English”:
The prevalence of the word “Bahai” in British books is somewhat different. The first spike occurs in 1921. Then there are other spikes of activity in 1974 and 1981. And finally, most curious is the astounding increase in 2008 – the final year for which there is data.
Take a look yourself and see what sorts of things you can discover. As always, if you have any insight or comment, I’d love to hear about it below.
If searching through billions of words in the span of seconds isn’t amazing enough, you can also bore down into the books themselves using the links provided at the bottom of the graph at the Google Ngram website and actually read where each mention is featured.