Ever wondered what percentage of books the word “Shazam” has appeared in over the last 100 years?
Don’t lie. You’ve wondered.
Well wonder no longer. Among the bounteous navigational gifts bestowed upon the world by Google, there is an amazing tool called the Ngram Viewer that allows you to satiate that very curiosity. Google Ngram gives you the ability to trace the chronological frequency of usage for certain words and phrases across the Google Books library. It’s an amazing tool if, like me, you happen to be a huge word nerd.
For the record, Google Ngram traces the first utterance of “Shazam” in books to 1944, just five years after early DC Comics hero Captain Marvel made the exclamation his trademark. (Note: Ngram is case sensitive. You’ll get different results if you type in “shazam.”)
Its usage experienced a dramatic increase between 1962 and 1969 when Jim Nabors, as the dimwitted auto mechanic Gomer Pyle, weekly beamed the expression into primetime homes as part of the Andy Griffith Show and, thereafter in his own spinoff, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
In 1974, Captain Marvel got his own TV show, entitled, conveniently enough, Shazam! Google Ngram shows a continued acceleration in usage of the word throughout the coming decade. The show was off the air by 1977 but that same year, a computer programmer invented a “comprehensive econometrics and statistics package” called SHAZAM. Usage of the word continued to trend upward until 1980 before experiencing a sharp drop-off.
In 1999, a London-based group of programmers created an awesome smartphone app that identifies the title and artist of a given song by “listening” to just a few notes. It too was called Shazam and it allowed the phrase “Shazam” to achieve its peak usage position in 2003, at which point the phrase could be found in .0000039677% of all books from the time period.
Though it’s important to know the literary history of the word Shazam, there may be yet more valuable ways to employ the Ngram application. For instance, if you are an epidemiologist who wishes to chart the history of the “Bubonic Plague” as it appears in written works, Google’s Ngram viewer can tell you that its first mention in an available text is from 1581. Both owing to the popularity of the subject and the relatively smaller number of books from the time, the Plague appeared in .0001828794% of books. Thereafter, its usage would coincide with global outbreaks. For instance, after several hundred years of relative quiet in the publishing scene, “Bubonic Plague” claimed 80,000 lives in the city of Canton, China (modern day Guangzhou) in 1894. Google Ngram shows a spike in the term’s usage over the next two decades of writing.
Similar to charting the course of a disease throughout history, we can use the Ngram Viewer to chart the rise of Kanye West. Lord knows, if we were graphing the frequency with which Kanye West mentions “Kanye West,” it would be roughly 99% of the time, with the other 1% devoted to mentions of the Kardashians, Jay-Z, Beyonce, and the mall. In spite of his own claims that he is either a god or The God, 2004 marks the first time that his name is mentioned in a book.
Since the Ngram viewer only goes up to 2008, we’ll have to consider that Yeezy’s peak. Herein, he is mentioned in .0000039211% of all books. It doesn’t sound like a ton, and I’m sure it really bothers Kanye West that he doesn’t get a shout-out in most major medical journals or books recalling historical Supreme Court Cases. It probably makes him even angrier that stalwart Grammy host LL Cool J earned namedrops in a nearly identical .0000031706% of all books available on Google in the same year without the help of a reality television series or a single Twitter meltdown.
If Google’s Ngram viewer isn’t enough of a time-burgler for you, The New York Times also has one. Likewise, Google Trends offers a similar charting experience for those who prefer trending topics over literary ones.