Google has quietly released a massive database that's as scholarly a tool as it is fun to play with. Called Ngram, this digital storehouse contains 500 billion words from 5.2 million books published between 1500 and 2008 in English, French, Spanish, German, Russian, and Chinese. It lets anyone search for words and short phrases, and chart how they have been used over time. Just a couple of clicks reveals how "women" overtook "men" in usage in the mid-1980s, and how "grill" grew more popular than "fry" in 2004.
Harvard researchers teamed up with Google to create this search tool, reports the New York Times. "We wanted to show what becomes possible when you apply very high-turbine analysis to questions in the humanities," said one of the researchers, who called the method "culturomics." Among their findings, published in Science: The names of celebrities faded twice as fast in the mid-1900s and they did in the early 1800s (“In the future everyone will be famous for 7.5 minutes"); and while it took 66 years for technology to be widely adopted in the early 1800s, by 1880, it only took 27 years.