Alex Steer

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Getting economic history wrong with Google NGrams

267 words | ~1 min

Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once (or more). Google Ngrams is lots of fun, but it is next to useless for analysing the history of language, or of ideas.

I'm talking to you, New York Times Economics Blog. An otherwise sound blog post on the flawed idea of an economic 'new normal' includes this chart, which is used to argue that the idea of the 'new normal' was also bouncing around in the past 'during some major economic shocks'.

Google NGram for New Normal since 1900 Right, so what's happened here? Clearly a forty year period does not constitute a period of economic shock, and everything other than that massive hill of data does not constitute a meaningful change in usage. If you bother to go to Google Books and search for new normal between 1900 and 1940, all becomes clear. You wade through pages and pages of hits describing 'new normal schools/colleges'. These are, for the most part, references to the Normal Schools (teacher training schools) that sprang up across the States in the late nineteenth and earlier part of the 20th century. Sorry to be a churl, but seriously. If you want to be an economic historian, do your homework properly.

# Alex Steer (14/01/2011)