Frequency of the Word “Bahai” in English Books

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 ?Baha’i?. 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:

Bahai google ngram English

Click to see larger graph

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”:

Bahai google ngram British English

Click to see larger graph

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.

  • Ivan

    Did you consider the number of books published over the years as being an ever increasing factor? Though I haven’t checked, sounds like the quantity of what was published in the late 19th century cannot be compared with what has been published with what was published last year…
    Maybe a full year then is what is published in a day now?

  • Anonymous

    Good point Ivan. Although there is a marked increase in the publication of books there is also an increase in the diversity of subjects that attract authors and audiences alike. It is a competitive world out there!

    The Ngram data is presented as relative to the total. So for example, if there was 1 mention of Bahai among 100 books, that would be 1% and so forth. This maintains a historically continuous alignment and allows us to compare one year to the next.

  • Anonymous

    I think the 70′s spike is the hippie movement catching up from the 60′s. The late 60′s and 70′s were a time of growth in the American Bahai community.

  • Bird

    OMG Baquia you are awesome! I love this site. Did you see in like 1914 Encyclopedia Americana reported there were 2,000,000 Bahai’s world wide? Leave it to you my beloved cyber light to bring out this great research tool. I’ve been reading you LA newsletters from the 70′s and it appears to me the spike may have been from the emergence of real discussions and research. Many of my Bahai friends declared back then but it’s strange how I question and read the history and they don’t. I had lunch with a Bahai GF the other day and she asked, ‘Bird, why would you read that stuff in the internet about the BF, why not take the Ruhi…” I told her I’d be happy spending 25 years on Book 1 &….Cause I can.. and… I dig digging. I plan to dig with this new tool, I adore you! BTW- I don’t think my re-enrollment will be accepted as I asked to be placed back in the community in April and was told I needed to sign a new card, when I produced research I did not I didn’t get an answer. I still very much feel Bahai if I were to wear a label in the sense I grew as a better human from the Writings and wish I could help the community I see struggling and once loved so dearly. I don’t miss the dysfuction of it all nor will I fight them to take me back. I reduced every aspect of being a Bahai was a burden but one, giving to the (Fund) needs, money. You remember. I miss helping with funds and deeds but I don’t think they are ready for me yet. They know where I live.. I’ve read your post about the Chile Temple and the $ problems with it. I like sitting behnd this key board and looking forward to your notices of new topics. Love & Light my Friend. Bird

  • Bird

    BTW- the grass on your header of this page is the grass in my yard. It feels like you are walking on a cloud. Perfect for this experience of your site. You are a real “Keeper of the Fire” Baquia – Bird

  • Baquia

    Thank you for your kind words

  • Baquia

    the grass in the header is from a small patch on Mt. Carmel near the Shrine of the Bab. I have no idea how or why it is shaped like an ocean roiling with waves but I found it simply mesmerizing in a serene way.

  • Namayn

    To become a truly universal, grassroots, democratic and evolving faith where the independent investigation of truth is sacrosanct the Bahai Faith must have available to the public and scholars for translation, study and comparison ALL of Bahaullah’s Writings and ALL the various unexpurgated histories written by Babis, Bahais and others. Only then can the Revelation of Bahaullah be a healing for the nations and not continue to lay imprisoned behind bars of official histories, selected texts, infallibility fetishes and institutions not sanctioned by Bahaullah such as Universal Houses of Justice and Guardianships yielding arrows of excommunication and shunning.