Charting celebrity

I have been discovering how Google NGRAM can answer all sorts of niggling questions about fame, celebrity and novelty . What it does is search the 5 million books that have been digitised between 1500 and 2000. This adds up to about 4 per cent of all the books published and a staggering 500 billion words. By any standards this is a big sample. NGRAM searches for the words you choose and plots them by the number of times they are found in a year against the total number of words in that year. As a way of picking up broad trends it’s difficult to beat.

Some examples. I have always been bugged by the arrival of that unlovely phrase ‘anatomically modern human’ to describe ancestors who looked like us, who had our genes but for reasons best known to themselves declined to behave like us. Or at least that’s the argument put forward by many who see a great deal of significance in the appearance of art and musical instruments late in the human story. NGRAM nails its appearance nicely to the late 1970s when the idea of a recent human revolution started to gain traction and wider ideas of post-war modernity were rampant.

ngram - anatomically modern human

Then what about a longer perspective? When did we stop calling ourselves antiquaries and become archaeologists? NGRAM shows two things. The switch occurred in the interwar years as university departments and professional archaeology got established. But it also shows that ‘archaeologist’ has never enjoyed the year on year popularity of ‘antiquary’. Perhaps time for a celebrity makeover?


Finally, you can search for famous people. I’m writing a lecture for the Royal Anthropological Institute at the moment (September 20th at the British Museum if you can come). John Lubbock was our first President in 1871 and he died a hundred years ago. In 1865 he published Pre-historic times. In the same year E.B.Tylor published his Researches into the early history of mankind and the development of civilization. Two giants of nineteenth century archaeology and anthropology; although the NGRAM above suggests they would not have called themselves that and, anyway, Lubbock loathed the term anthropology.


Both show a peak in popularity with Lubbock easily winning the battle of NGRAM fame six years after their books appeared; precursors to Darwin’s Descent of Man which also appeared in 1871. So why did Lubbock win the fame stakes?
The reason for Lubbock’s rise has more to do with his private members bill of the same year (he was elected to Parliament in 1870) that gave the British their first Bank Holiday. NGRAM fame lies less in coining terms like Neolithic and Palaeolithic but in making people happy. We have always been a nation that appreciates our Andy Murrays.