Idioms Exposed via Ngrams

I just discovered Google’s Ngram Viewer which came out in 2010 — boy am I behind the times!   Did you guys know about this and not tell me?

An “ngram” (wiki) is a term to describe data series used in computational linguistic.  If you are interested, here is a fun TED talk describing its use in “Culturomics”.  In this post I use the Ngram Viewer to explore a few idioms.

Idioms are phrases whose meanings you can’t understand by just knowing the meanings of the phrase’s individual words. When learning Japanese I had to memorize hundreds of idioms to even begin to understand normal Japanese conversation. Most of us don’t know the historical origins of idioms but we can still use the expressions perfectly.  But knowing their origins, can make a language much more colorful.  The idioms I will explore below are:  “one of the Jones boys“, “petered out“, and “lost my marbles“.

One of the Jones Boys

When older patients named “Jones” introduce themselves, they will often say “I’m one of the Jones boys“.   I have always wanted to know where that idiom comes from.  Google books “Ngram View” comes to the rescue!  I just typed in the phrase “one of the Jones boys” and “Bang!” there it is – click this link to see it.  The phrase began in the 1940s-1950s and then petered out.

With only a little more searching, I quickly understood the 1940-50 spike and thus the origin of the phrase. “One of the Jones boys” actually was the creation of E.C. Segar who made it a saying of  Wimpy in his comic strip series of Popeye.  The clever, but cowardly Wimpy used the phrase to placate possible enemies by implying there must be a mistaken identity since “Joneses” are in large number.

Petered Out

If you will note, I used the idiom “petered out” above. Again, using the Ngram Viewer we see that ironically “petered out” began in the 1880s and has stayed up since — it has not petered out like “one of the Jones boys“.

If you are a native American English speaker, you probably can imagine where “petered out” came from — but you’d be peversely wrong. There are many theories about the origin of the word — even a religious one referring to Peter’s betrayal of Jesus — his loyalty withered. But the real origin of the idiom is not as gloriously religious or crudely sexual.  Instead, apparently the word originated in the mining camps of America in the 19th century when “peter” was saltpetre (potassium nitrate) — used in gunpowder (source). Indeed, it was not until the 1920s when “peter” changed to mean “penis” that the phrase took off!  Sorry, I just can’t help myself.

Lost my Marbles

My idiom research for this post began today when my daughter asked me to explain a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip which used the idiom, “I’ve lost my marbles“.   Using the Ngram View, you can see that “lost my marbles” took off in the 1950 which a further google search reveals was due to Humphrey Bogart using the expression in the movie The Caine Mutiny (source).

Well, this post was meant to introduce you to the Ngram Viewer if you did not know of it.  It is a great distraction for us nerds.  Even more interesting is when you use the Ngram View to compare words or phrases.  HT to Language Log for introducing me to the viewer by discussing the recent acceptance of “Hopefully” as a sentence modifier — a fun post showing how language changes.

In my next post I will use the Ngram Viewer to explore religious issues. But in the meanwhile:

Challenge to Readers:  use the Ngram Viewer to expose the origins of an idiom, then tell us your findings in the comments along with a link to your Ngram chart.  Remember, in the next post we will do more than one word/phrase, so here, just stick to one idiom.


Filed under Linquistics, Philosophy & Religion

11 responses to “Idioms Exposed via Ngrams

  1. No luck with my idiom. Ever heard the phrase ‘then everything went south’ in reference to everything becoming worse? Ive always wondered, why south? The Ngram viewer couldn’t help me, most of the hits were for actual directions, not situations getting worse.

  2. Thanx for playing, Bart,

    I should have probably put two caveates in the post:

    (1) The engine is case-sensitve: but you were careful there.

    (2) Sometimes you have to trim the idiom.
    In your case, searching for “everything went south” gives a bit more information.

    One explanation you find is that the expression “went south” is used to define failure, loss or a bad experience and started after the Civil War. “Went South” was used in a derogatory manner to infer that anything from the South was bad, a failure. The term is attributed to General William Sherman during the burning of Atlanta. (source).

    However, Ngram Viewer’s results conflict with that explanation by implying that it really only became popular in the late 1970s in the USA. And, if you search under only British English it does not even appear.

    Hmmm, looks like we have a mystery. Again, thanx for playing.

  3. Syl

    That’s interesting background for “going south”. I’ve assumed it was related to the common orientation of maps – north up, south down. So if something wasn’t going well – going downhill (another idiom for you) – it was going south.

    Another “south” reference – southpaw, for lefthanded. Originally baseball slang, it apparently started in Chicago where, due to the geographic orientation of the field, a lefthanded pitcher’s arm would be on the south side.

  4. @ Syl: Well, according to Ngram Viewer, it is an Americanism. Of course if you go south in England, you are in the sea. So “going south” works better here. 😉

    What do you think accounts for the spikes in “southpaw“?

  5. This is brilliant! I love that you discovered this trying to help your daughter find information. Very cool that Dad does real research unlike many people. I actually knew that peter mining reference; maybe because I’m a chemistry fanatic.

    I must be using the viewer wrong, Sabio, because I couldn’t find mine. It was, “Then I’m a monkey’s uncle”. I always suspected it was a creationist phrase, but I really wanted to look it up!

  6. @ amelie
    Sometimes you have to cut the phrase down. So in your case, “monkey’s uncle” works. And indeed, it was first mentioned at the Scopes Trial of 1926 and in print by the 1930s. There you go — empirical evidence! Don’t we love it!

  7. OMG Sabio, that is so cool! Like you I value empircal evidence for science, but I rarely see it for linguistics. Great.

  8. BTW, amelie, one of the most amazing empirical linguistical results presented on the TED talk is this similar to this one. The conclusion: As time marches on, we forget more quickly the year before. In the past, we hung on to our memory of the past for a longer time. The math is brilliantly clear — our advances in technology is wiping out our love of the past.

  9. Ah, thank you for the Ngram link. I’ve been trying to remember what that thing was called.

  10. @ David Rattigan: You are welcome. Can’t we entice you tho play, though? 🙂

  11. This weekend, another thought came up on ‘Everything went south’. Someone thought it might have meant when an outlaw had to head south to Mexico to evade the law in the US.

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