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.
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.