Drinking’s Literary History

I enjoy reading about drinking, especially its history and cultural impact.  The week before Christmas one of my favorite publication, The Atlantic, published an interesting article that made me ponder the confluence of drinking, literature, and history.

The article showcased Google’s Ngram Viewer, which “compares frequency with which words and phrases have been used through time.”  The Ngram Viewer analyzes approximately one-third of all Google Books, which in turn claims to equal about one-fifth of “all books published since Gutenberg.”  Needless to say, this is a sizable data population.

Of course I immediately input drinking terminology into this literature analysis tool.  Would the frequency of certain words – tavern, saloon, and pub – be significant when compared throughout history?  Has popular culture affected the frequency of these words’ usage?  Does literature mirror common speech?

A few clicks proved the results (pictured above) of English texts and literature written between 1900 and 2010.  And I think the resulting line graphs allow for several political, economic, and cultural observations.

Over time, saloon shows uneven declination from its popularity following the turn of the century.  The Noble Experiment – Prohibition – had no apparent negative impact on the word’s appearance in print; on the contrary, the frequency of all three increased slightly between 1919 and 1933.  Throughout the 1930s and the Great Depression the three words’ usage continually increased.  While drinking may have increased during and following the Baby Boomers’ late 1960s Cultural Revolution, the use of these words did not.  Pub and tavern show a sudden increase in popularity during the mid and late 1950s, respectively.  All three approximate each other in frequency from the 1960s to the present.  And between 2000 and 2010, pub appears much less than saloon or tavern.

Do these results produce any profound insights?  Clearly literature is full of references to various houses of drink, with each term carrying an implicit reference to a geographic setting, specific atmosphere and ambiance, class of patron, and likely choice of drink.  For example, a saloon conjures images of the American West, lawlessness, and whiskey.

These literary trends tell us much about American history and more importantly, of the drinking practices of the authors who penned those words.  Perhaps years from now we will also be understood by what we say about  drink.

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Published in: on January 3, 2011 at 11:58 pm  Comments (1)  
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One Comment

  1. Very entertaining and enlightening conversation piece….saloon or tavern…..more popular than pub interesting….what about bar or inn or the infamous “watering hole”!! Cheers!


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