Is a word you hate on the rise? Ngram Viewer can tell you

Years back, a reader of this column mentioned that, all of a sudden, she was hearing the word “whinge” everywhere. What was up with that, she wanted to know. I had no answer. To my recollection, that was the first time I’d ever come across the word “whinge.”

Back then, I didn’t know about Ngram Viewer — a Google service you can use to search published writing to learn how popular a word is over time. Ngram Viewer lets you choose from several different databases of published works, some dating back to 1800. Just put in the word and you’ll see the percentage of books your word appeared in, plotted over time.

That’s how I learned that my reader was right: “whinge,” which means to complain or whine, was extremely rare in print until about 1980, when it suddenly began skyrocketing, peaking in 2012. So I wondered: Is “whinge” replacing “whine”? Ngram Viewer lets you plot words in comparison to each other, so I typed in “whinge, whine” and saw that my theory was wrong. “Whine,” like “whinge,” also started getting more popular around 1980, peaking in the 2010s. Yet “whine” remains far more common — appearing about 40 times as often as “whinge.”

This all reminded me of another reader question I couldn’t answer many years ago: Is “fraught with” losing ground to just plain-old “fraught”? In my experience, definitely. I never heard “fraught” by itself until pretty recently. So I searched them both. It turns out that the standalone “fraught” has gotten more popular in my lifetime, but that’s only because it dipped in popularity in the decades leading up to the 1960s. For a century and a half before then, “fraught” without “with” was about as popular as it is today.

You can read what I learned about "bandana"/"bandanna," "immersive," "step foot" and more in my recent column.

Tags: , ,