Tuesday, February 19, 2013

She Led with the Right Word

In quite another context, looking at the phrase “soul mate,” I was on Google Ngram Viewer again. This facility tracks the occurrence of words or phrases in all books that Google has actually digitized and indexed. The pairing of “sense” and “sensibility” has long amused me—showing in a way how language changes. Back when Jane Austen wrote her novels, sense stood for rational thought and sensibility for feeling. Herewith the ngram that tracks the usage of all three since 1800:


Note how sensibility has just about disappeared from usage—whereas feeling at first rose fairly steeply in the nineteenth century and has, since about 1885, been on a slow decline—at least among the printed words Google has digitized.

Now for that other even more famous Jane Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice:


What this ngram shows is that pride is holding its own, but it was a lot higher in 1800 than since. And prejudice has been rising steadily, as I interpret the chart, since 1845.

Austen, however, unerringly used the right word with which to lead in her titles. But never mind the ngram rank of Sense and Pride. When it comes to titles, one syllable always leads when the next word has five or three.

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