What’s in a word?

Being a writer, I have an innate fascination with language and how words are used. Being a writer of historical fiction, this fascination extends to how the usage of words can change over time. As I write and edit my novels, I am constantly looking up words to make sure that they were in use during the time period in which my books are set (the 1800s). This has led me to make some interesting discoveries along the way!

I refer to various websites when researching word usage and the origins of different phrases, but my main source is Google Dictionary, which comes up if you search for a term plus the word ‘definition’. I have found it to provide a comprehensive list of meanings for words, as well as synonyms and approximate eras for when the words first came into use.

What’s intriguing about this is how words can do a complete one-eighty over the years. While researching the word ‘egregious‘, I learned that its definition was the exact opposite centuries ago – from an archaic sense of ‘remarkably good’, it has come to mean ‘outstandingly bad’. When I excitedly told my husband this (yes, I really was excited!), he said that ‘terrific‘ had gone the same way. Sure enough, one quick search later informed me that, while we now consider ‘terrific’ to be a description of something excellent or wonderful, it used to mean ‘causing terror’. Funny, isn’t it?

Another extremely useful device I have found on Google Dictionary is the Google Books Ngram Viewer. Below the standard definitions of words, there is a drop-down arrow to go to Translations, word origin, and more definitions. Clicking on this reveals a graph of your chosen word’s popularity over the past few centuries. The Ngram Viewer works by scanning millions of published books and charting the rise and fall of the word across the years. This is a very helpful tool for establishing whether a particular word was in common usage in, for example, the 1820s.

There are some caveats to be aware of when using the Ngram Viewer, however, and this 2015 article on Wired.com points out several of these pitfalls. For example, when it scans much older books it can get confused between the letter ‘f’ and the old-fashioned way of writing a long ‘s’, causing an inconsistency in the frequency of their usage. Furthermore, there is apparently a huge amount of scientific literature included in the Ngram Viewer’s enormous library of scanned books which can skew the results in the graphs. Nevertheless, bearing these flaws in mind, I think it can still be utilised in an effective way and I have relied upon it to avoid many anachronistic words in my books.

In illustration, I consulted the Ngram Viewer when desiring to compare a character’s cutting tone to barbed wire. The graph below warned me that the term had not come into popular use until well after 1828, when the events of my first novel take place, so it prompted me to do further research and I discovered that barbed wire was not patented until 1867. No references to barbed wire now occur in my book.

Barbed wire

Here is a rather regrettable one charting the downward spiral of ‘chivalry’…!


It’s possible to enter more than one search term for making comparisons, and also to adjust the time frame parameters. Here is a graph between 1750 and 1850 showing the decline of the harpsichord and the rise of the piano as the latter replaced the former as the dominant keyboard instrument in music composition and performance.

Piano vs harpsichord

I could spend all day entering more search terms in the Ngram Viewer! For any of you word-lovers out there who haven’t come across it before, I hope I’ve shown you a useful and fascinating tool!

6 thoughts on “What’s in a word?

  1. Grace says:

    That is really cool!! Out of interest, I just checked “pianoforte” vs. “piano”, and it turns out piano has always been slightly more common than pianoforte, which is not what Jane Austen would have us believe!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. M says:

    Writing isn’t just getting the words down on the page – you have to find the right words! I’d love to know how ‘egregious’ and ‘terrific’ did an ‘about-turn’ and end up being the exact opposite! Very interesting! I’m glad that I’m the Reader and not the Writer!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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