Experiments in Ngram Art


Google Ngram Viewer is a tool that allows users to search for a word or phrase in Google’s vast collection of digitized books and graph the results.

This graph shows the use of words for various technologies over time. Telegraph had its modest moment in the early 20th century. Telephone started its rise right after it had its first major public demonstration in 1876. Television had a steep increase mid-century, but was quite outdone by the sharp leap taken by computer in the second half of the century.

A lot of what you find exploring Ngram is pretty obvious. Here, a search on the word war shows major peaks in its usage during both world wars.

But you can also discover patterns that aren’t so obvious. Milk, sugar, meat, butter, flour, and cigarettes also had peaks during the world wars. In retrospect, this might seem obvious—it probably has to do with the rationing and shortages associated with wartime—but interesting to see it so clearly outlined on the basis of word use alone.

It’s important to be aware of scaling when comparing words on Ngram. The y-axis shows percentages over all the words in the Google Books corpus. Sex went from .004 percent of words in 1960 to .007 percent in the year 2000. Its rise is paralleled over the same period with that for drugs. But it appears there isn’t much to say about rock and roll.

Not so! Rock and roll had its own meteoric rise, just on a much smaller scale, percentage-wise. By 2000, it had gone from 0 to .00008 percent of all three-word chunks. (The “n” in “Ngram” refers to the number of sequential units considered as a chunk. Single words are 1-grams, two word phrases are 2-grams, three word phrases are 3-grams…). It's hard to see that when it has to share the stage with relative giants like sex and drugs.


Ngram art is something I discovered through hours of playing with Ngram. I use Ngram frequently to answer questions or satisfy my curiosity about linguistic change. Sometimes I get sucked into a zone where I’m just throwing random words and phrases at it to see what happens. One late night, I noticed that in the graph for high and low, the image matched the meaning of the words. On the graph, high was high and low was low.

Soon I was chasing those moments of serendipity down, trying to choose the right words to make line images that would relate back their meanings. It wasn’t as easy as it looks. Words are strange creatures that do not necessarily behave as you would expect when graphed over time. Still, I discovered it was possible, in a crude way, to draw with data. Here is the resulting small gallery of Ngram art.

If you’d like to try your hand at Ngram art visit the Ngram Viewer. If you’d like to know more about how Ngram works and what its results mean see this TED talk by the creators Jean-Baptiste Michel and Erez Lieberman Aiden. For information on some of the more complex searches you can do, see this Atlantic article by Ben Zimmer.

Afternoon Map
The Most Popular Infomercial Product in Each State

You don't have to pay $19.95 plus shipping and handling to discover the most popular infomercial product in each state: AT&T retailer All Home Connections is giving that information away for free via a handy map.

The map was compiled by cross-referencing the top-grossing infomercial products of all time with Google Trends search interest from the past calendar year. So, which crazy products do people order most from their TVs?

Folks in Arizona know that it's too hot there to wear layers; that's why they invest in the Cami Secret—a clip-on, mock top that gives them the look of a camisole without all the added fabric. No-nonsense New Yorkers are protecting themselves from identity theft with the RFID-blocking Aluma wallet. Delaware's priorities are all sorted out, because tons of its residents are still riding the Snuggie wave. Meanwhile, Vermont has figured out that Pajama Jeans are the way to go—because who needs real pants?

Unsurprisingly, the most popular product in many states has to do with fitness and weight loss, because when you're watching TV late enough to start seeing infomercials, you're probably also thinking to yourself: "I need to get my life together. I should get in shape." Seven states—Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, Nebraska, Utah, and Wisconsin—have invested in the P90X home fitness system, while West Virginia and Arkansas prefer the gentler workout provided by the Shake Weight. The ThighMaster is still a thing in Illinois and Washington, while Total Gym and Bowflex were favored by South Dakota and Wyoming, respectively. 

Kitchen items are clearly another category ripe for impulse-buying: Alabama and North Dakota are all over the George Forman Grill; Alaska and Rhode Island are mixing things up with the Magic Bullet; and Floridians must be using their Slice-o-matics to chop up limes for their poolside margaritas.

Cleaning products like OxiClean (D.C. and Hawaii), Sani Sticks (North Carolina), and the infamous ShamWow (which claims the loyalty of Mainers) are also popular, but it's Proactiv that turned out to be the big winner. The beloved skin care system claimed the top spot in eight states—California, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas—making it the most popular item on the map.

Peep the full map above, or check out the full study from All Home Connections here.

A Florida Brewery Created Edible Six-Pack Rings to Protect Marine Animals

For tiny scraps of plastic, six-pack rings can pose a huge threat to marine life. Small enough and ubiquitous enough that they’re easy to discard and forget about, the little plastic webs all too often make their way to the ocean, where animals can ingest or become trapped in them. In order to combat that problem, Florida-based Saltwater Brewery has created what they say is the world’s first fully biodegradable, compostable, edible six-pack rings.

The edible rings are made of barley and wheat and are, if not necessarily tasty, at least safe for animals and humans to ingest. Saltwater Brewery started packaging their beers with the edible six-pack rings in 2016. They charge slightly more for their brews to offset the cost of the rings' production. They hope that customers will be willing to pay a bit more for the environmentally friendly beers and are encouraging other companies to adopt the edible six-pack rings in order to lower manufacturing prices and save more animals.

As Saltwater Brewery president Chris Gove says in the video above: “We want to influence the big guys and kind of inspire them to also get on board.”


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