Ngram Viewer: Historical Jargon and the Journey of PC Language

My goal for this week’s practicum was to take a look at the way language has been used and changed historically to refer to both people groups and regions. Two prominent examples that came to mind were language uses for African Americans and the Middle East, the former representing the people group and the later representing the region.

Use of Discriminatory Language Towards African Americans

For the above diagram, I chose to compare three terms most commonly used to refer to the African American population in the U.S: Blacks, Negros, and African American. Through schooling and being raised in an anti-discrimination environment, I knew that the term ‘negro’ was and unfortunately still is a term used to refer to African Americans in a hateful way. I also knew that ‘blacks’ and ‘african american’ were terms that were used throughout history in an attempt to replace this hateful term. So, I decided to chart each of these terms into one graph to see when and by what degree these terms were exchanged for one another. The results weren’t very surprising. The use of the term ‘negro’ increased well above the term ‘blacks’ and especially ‘african americans’, peaking during the era of the Civil War, which was fought primarily over the issue of slavery. The term saw a major drop off until roughly 1875, when it went through an accordion-like rise and fall until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, where the term ‘blacks’ increased drastically. One element of this chart that did surprise me was the lack of movement in the use of the term ‘african american’. Even during the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, the term never gains much, or any, popularity. I’m not much of a historical guru, or a linguist at that, but I would venture a guess that my understanding of the term ‘african american’ as a replacement for the previous derogatory term was incorrect. Any other hypotheses would be greatly appreciated!

 Use of Discriminatory Language Towards the Middle East 

Next, I decided to look at how regions have been referred to much the same way. This time I chose to use a topic that I was more familiar with: the Middle East. From this point, I chose three terms commonly used to refer to the region, the Orient, the Near East, and the Middle East. Again, these results were not very surprising to me as an educated viewer. Prior to the term ‘Near East’, the ‘Orient’ was a term used to refer to the region east of the European countries. Key in this use of the word ‘Orient’ was this idea of the ‘other’, or a group of people different from ones own people, and not in a positive sense. Many researchers and historians used the term in books and writings that viewed the region in a very negative light. Edward Said, a prominent scholar on the subject, wrote many books discussing just that. In an attempt to move away from the discriminatory term, the use of ‘Near East’ came into popular use among scholars and especially in universities. Classes became known as ‘Near East Studies’ rather than ‘Orient Studies’. This change, however, is dwarfed by the entrance of the term ‘Middle East’ starting in the 1940’s. One suggestion for this change could be the increased involvement the U.S. had in affairs in that part of the world, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. A growing knowledge and familiarity with the region could well account for this change. Given this change, it is not surprising that both the ‘Orient’ and the ‘Near East’ began to die out and never rose again to such prominence.

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