In 1931, Sir Herbert Butterfield challenged historians to immerse themselves into the complexity of the past, that the historians job was not to “confirm facts or dates or to correct occasional points of error,” but rather to burn with “the desire to bring himself into genuine relationship with the actual, with all the particulars of chance and change – the desire to see at first-hand how an important decision comes to be made.”[1] Immersion, however, requires a great deal of energy, a premier dedication to time, to study, and a willingness to suspend the now, suspend one’s current culture, instead adopting this “other,” this past vastness in all its space, language, idioms, points and people that no longer exist. Butterfield’s charge, however, does not come easy. History without abridgement is indeed a monumental task. Further, in between Butterfield’s immersion challenge and the present, the ever-morphing field of History embraced the cynical 1960s and 70s to cast considerable doubt upon whether or not such a herculean task can ever be obtained.

Recently, however, Google released a new tool that favors historical plunging. The “NGram Viewer” allows scholars to surf historical lexicons of words, phrases, people and places at a mere click. Because mighty Google has scanned well over 5,000,000 books, and continues this effort in earnest, these newly digitized tomes now become a serious wordscape, a place where mountains of data – irretrievable only a decade ago – not only loom into view, but relate routes and signposts for further scholastic adventures and discoveries. In other words, Google scans these digitized books the way in which its patented bots comb the internet; therefore, the retrieved data is returned to you in true geek form, via eye-popping charts that easily convey a story – an interpretive story (to make members of Clio’s army happy).

For example; taking another look at my master’s thesis – I argued that nationalism reared its head in mid-eighteenth-century Britain. I used the unusual case of Admiral John Byng’s execution to make my case. It took about 140 pages to successfully do so. If, however, I had this NGram Viewer from Google, the temptation to use the following charts may well have shortened my paper. Take chart number

CHART 1 - Results of the word 'nation" show an exponential rise in the use of the term beginning in the Seven Years' War

one for example; an NGram review of the word “nation” shows two dramatic spikes in the use of the word within the 5 million or so books Google has scanned. You can personally set the date parameters and for this word search; I instructed the NGram Viewer to search all of the books between the years 1620 and 2000. There are two spikes; one just before the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, and then a huge spike which occurred perhaps just a decade before the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763). The spike remains until after the American Revolution. Interesting.

But what does this prove? The word “nation” in and of itself proves nothing, context is missing. Just how was the word used? In conjunction with what other phrases, terms, or words? Can the NGram Viewer answer these questions?

Yes, and in two ways.

CHART 2 - Results of the NGram search of the words "Nation" (blue) and "People" (red)

First, the viewer allows you to type in a second related word or phrase. Below is Chart 2 which adds the word “people” to the search. As you can see; “people” (in red) follows the nearly the same trajectory of the word “nation” (in blue), showing that when folks wrote books back in the mid-eighteenth century, the two words seemingly traveled together. If one spoke of the nation, one spoke of the people. This is precisely the type of proof historians of nationalism utilize in order to prove that nationalism existed. To add to the discourse it must be stated that most nationalistic historians claim that nationalism is a post-Napoleonic thing. These charts say otherwise – as did my thesis!

Second, and perhaps more important, the results of the NGram Viewer provide links to those books in which your search term was found. For example; well over 289,000 hits were pulled by Google where the words “nation” and “people” were simultaneously conjoined in the same document, be it a book, magazine, or legal paper. John Shebbeare’s writings such as the 1756 Letters on the English Nation interested me because he seemingly wrote about people and nation – as one – at a time when one was not supposed to have done so. NGram Viewer, though, proves Shebbeare had plenty of company. In addition, some of the returns even take you to the very page in which those words appear. This is a tremendous boon to researchers.

CHART 3 - NGram Viewer results for the term "peculiar institution."

For students of the American Civil War, typing in the phrase “peculiar institution” proves that its use came into dramatic vogue beginning in the decade of the 1830s; Chart 3 shows this view. Again, links to those very books, those very abolitionist writings that pointed to the evils of slavery, are provided. Not only does the researcher know when the term came into vogue, or that maybe prior to the 1830s most folks considered the institution of slavery “normal,” but you also have at the researcher’s beckoning the very primary materials in which the term appeared!


[1] Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History, rev. ed. (New York: Norton, 1965), 73.

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