Books

What Big Data Can Tell Us About Modern Love and the Death of Chivalry

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41ObGnCKEhL._SS500_ In 2010, Harvard scholars Erez Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel worked with Google engineers to create the Google Books Ngram Viewer. This endlessly fascinating toy harnesses and examines the knowledge that lives in 7.5 million of the books Google Books has worked to digitize, allowing you to chart how frequently various words and phrases have been used through history. 

In their new book Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture, out this week, the co-creators of this ambitious project explore and analyze the vocabulary trends of the last 200 years. The Date Report asked Aiden and Michel what these trends might be able to teach us about the trajectory of modern love. Are we truly living in a post-chivalrous age, and how long has gentlemanly kindness been on its way out? What does it mean to “intercourse” with another person, and has it always been so scandalous? Aiden and Michel discuss the answers below.

Everyone knows that ‘chivalry is dead’. Ngrams don’t disagree: the frequency of the word ‘chivalry’ has declined about fivefold in books over the last two centuries.

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But when did it die? Ngrams tell us that the lament ‘chivalry is dead’ spiked in the 1880s. It hasn’t dropped off since. I’m sad to see ‘chivalry’ go, but at least it’s getting the world’s longest eulogy.

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In your opinion, is ‘friendly intercourse’ a good idea? Do you think there is something wrong with engaging in ‘commercial intercourse’?

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In the early 1900s, these concepts didn’t sound nearly as sketchy as they do today. This ngram plot, ‘* intercourse’, highlights the ten most frequent words that precede ‘intercourse’ over the last two centuries. All kinds of ‘social intercourse’ are disappearing. Today, ‘intercourse’ has come to imply the sexual variety. ‘Friendly intercourse’: what an old-fashioned idea!

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