Graphing the Words in the News Over Time

By Will H. Moore

Last week, The New York Times made public a fun tool, Chronicle, that makes it easy for anyone to graph the number of times a word was published in the Times since 1850. Alexis Lloyd created it, and she introduces it here. I think it is interesting that she chose an interstate war example, which I reproduce below, to illustrate its usage. We can see that “World War I” was not used much at all prior to 1940.


The Upshot also wrote an article, and they selected the word “insurgent.” Thus, the topic of this blog is apparently a focal point for interesting ways to illustrate word usage in news coverage.

I was interested in tracking several words that the research and reading I have done during my career has led me to note that government officials use to describe “dissidents.” So I plugged the words “bandits,” “communists,” “guerrillas,” “insurgents,” “rebels,” and “terrorists” into Chronicle and produced the graph below.


We see that the US Civil War produced an enormous use of the word “rebels,” and though the count today is a much smaller percentage of the total number of words published in the Times,[1] we see that “rebels” grew dramatically in prominence in 2011. “Communists” first appears around 1918, and then explodes after 1945. The impact of 9/11 upon the word “terrorists” is equally prominent.

One can readily imagine ways to improve the search: permit the selection of years; allow “and” / “or” (Boolean searches); permit users to exclude words. But as is, Chronicle is a fun tool that permits quick searches by the public of a very rich database: The New York Times. I encourage you to play around with it some.

[1] Chronicle permits the user to choose whether to create a graph of the number of times a word appeared during a year, or the percentage that word represents of all words published during that year. The first graph above uses percentage, but the second is the raw count.

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