Ngrammatic Exercises

So there's this new toy out on Google that everyone's talking about that allows you to track the occurrence of words and phrases in some millions of books published over the past 508 years. Clearly, this is the engine we've been waiting for to answer the mysteries of the universe. Or, at the very least, history.

For example, I have to write a paper on spiritual exercises for a conference coming up in January and I'm wondering when "spiritual exercises" actually became popular as a way of describing methods of contemplation and/or devotion. So I searched on the phrase, and voilà:

A clear peak in the seventeenth century, just as you would expect with all those Jesuits running around, with a precipitous drop-off after 1700.

But we are going to be talking about spiritual exercises as something that concerns people now as well, not just historically. What do with do with the fact that there are so many fewer references to spiritual exercises in the modern period? Well, what kinds of spiritual exercises do people do now? Oh, right, yoga.

Well, that gives me something to say, perhaps along the lines of "Aren't we just kidding ourselves if we insist that nobody does spiritual exercises now?" But what about other forms of mind-body discipline, say, fencing?

Yup, trumps both "spiritual exercises" and "yoga." Until around 1970 when yoga gets the upper hand.* But aren't spiritual exercises of any sort really about prayer?

And isn't prayer really about God?

We may not be talking about Him as much now as those folks back in the seventeenth century, but I'm having a hard time finding another word that we use more often even now. Your turn--can you? (Try "life." That seems to work.)

Ooo, ooo, ooo! Here's another one: Virgin Mary (blue) and goddess (red). Very interesting spike there around 1700....

*Although, come to think of it, there could be a need for disambiguation here between fencing as an athletic activity and fencing as a form of construction. Nuts.


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