What Our Words Tell Us

May 21, 2013

New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a great column on "What Our Words Tell Us." He looks at changes in word usage based on studies using Google's book database. Here are a few highlights:

...between 1960 and 2008 individualistic words and phrases increasingly overshadowed communal words and phrases.

That is to say, over those 48 years, words and phrases like "personalized," "self," "standout," "unique," "I come first" and "I can do it myself" were used more frequently. Communal words and phrases like "community," "collective," "tribe," "share," "united," "band together" and "common good" receded.

...moral terms like "virtue," "decency" and "conscience" were used less frequently over the course of the 20th century. Words associated with moral excellence, like "honesty," "patience" and "compassion" were used much less frequently.

...a long decline of usage in terms like "faith," "wisdom," "ought," "evil" and "prudence," and a sharp rise in what you might call social science terms like "subjectivity," "normative," "psychology" and "information."

... So the story I'd like to tell is this: Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.

...these gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture. We write less about community bonds and obligations because they're less central to our lives.
Brooks offering a fascinating look at some word trends. Although the findings are open to interpretation, he offers an insightful take on the trends. But even if you disagree with his conclusions, he is correct in his overall premise: words matter and the words we use say something about what we value.

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