Do you feel trendy? Language and vocabulary, like so many other parts of life, follow trends over time. You may have noticed, for example, that hipster has come into much more frequent use over the past ten years or so, while gnarly isn’t as fashionable as it once was.
In this branch of language evolution, there seem to be short-lived trends—buzzwords like death panel and the izzo as in fo’ shizzle* (“for sure”)—and more gradual ones, such as hipster replacing yuppie in popularity since the 1980s. (See NiemanLab article linked below.)
The Internet has certainly facilitated a lot of one-hit-wonderish language fads, through far-reaching social media and instant online publishing, and new tools are popping up to track these trends. Check out Merriam-Webster’s Trend Watch page for a good collection and explanation of recent buzzwords, i.e. words that had a sudden increase in number of lookups on m-w.com after a certain date or event. Find out what your own vocab trends have been with the Facebook app called My Year In Status, which mines all your status updates from a calendar year and creates a word collage showing your most commonly used words as the most prominent. (Creepy? Sure! But fascinating!) Or see what’s been salient in your favorite news sources and blogs with Wordle, a free online “word cloud” creator. Here’s the word art Wordle created for the Lerner Books Blog—can you tell we’ve had a lot of buzz about Millbrook’s titles Zombie Makers and Do You Know Dewey? (Click image for a larger version.)
Though Lerner strives to publish timely books, we editors probably avoid using most trendy words of this first type for obvious reasons. It’s the second type, the more gradual trends, that we’re more likely to pull from.
Tracking usage over longer periods isn’t as easy or as common—that’s generally left to the major dictionaries. But I’ve discovered a couple of interesting tools in the works. Google’s Ngram viewer graphs word usage across the Google Books library over the period of time that you set. Type in “security,” from 1900 to 2008, and you can see that it was an increasingly hot topic (and term) throughout the century, peaking around 2003.
In addition, Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab just wrote about Chronicle, a tool the New York Times is developing for internal analysis of language usage and story tags in the paper over the past thirty-one years. Chronicle, for example, has alerted the paper’s standards editor to the trendy popularity of the word signature—a gradual trend, not exactly a fad journalists should’ve known to avoid. But awareness of these trends can help us make sure we’re choosing words that are the best for the job (what about personal or trademark?), rather than words that are merely salient. In turn—though here at Lerner we don’t have quite so fancy of tools for analysis—we hope our attention and awareness translates into high-quality books that expand readers’ mastery of language, ever-changing as that language may be.
*Disclaimer: It’s entirely possible that the izzo is still in wider use than I’m aware of, but the short life of Snoop Dogg’s “Doggy Fizzle Televizzle” MTV show would support my statement.