Do shifts in the words we use define our culture's personality?

A UCLA analysis of words used over the past 200 years in American and British books concludes that our culture has shifted in parallel to the words we use and no longer use in literature. But is that conclusion believable? 

AP Photo/Richard Drew
Joshua Knoller looks at the Facebook page of his mother on his office computer, in New York, May 9. Knoller spent years refusing his mother’s “Friend Request” on Facebook before eventually “caving in.”

A word-frequency analysis of more than 1.5 million books published in America and Britain during the last two centuries claims to show how our cultural values have changed.

The analysis, done by UCLA psychology professor Patricia Greenfield, found a significant increase in the use of what she considers materialistic and individualistic words like “choose” and “get” and a decrease in community-orientated words like “give” and “oblige,” among others, according to a release from UCLA.

But does this type of analysis prove we are less giving or obliging now than before? Are our families full of me-centric children or parents?

Maybe not. Perhaps the increases and decreases in word usage can be attributed to our own habit of changing a word’s meaning over time.

For example, take the word “friend” – once a noun, “friend” has been famously turned into a verb by Facebook users.

Take it from child psychologist Randy Kulman: “In the case of this study, I really think it’s more a case of words being used indiscriminately and incorrectly, like calling someone a friend on Facebook when you may not know them at all, than reflecting how people actually feel.”

If the use of the word “friend” picks up around Facebook’s founding, then that implies two things: One, that culture affects the words used in literature; and two, that we may be using words in more than one way – that “get” doesn’t have to mean “come to have or hold.”

Using Ngram, the Google tool Professor Greenfield used to conduct her study, I charted the frequency of “friend” in American books published over the past two centuries.

The chart shows “friend” peaked in 1836 and then began a decline that would last until 1980. It made a slow resurgence over the next two decades until, after Facebook’s founding in 2004, the frequency of “friend” spiked.

Between 2004 and 2008, the use of “friend” increased by 14 percent – easily more than half the increase seen since the word started its ascent.

But, to me, “friend” – as used in that tender moment when one child faces another and says, “You wanna be friends?” – isn’t the “friend” that’s increasing. 

Unfortunately, I have noticed it becoming more common among kids and adults to say, “Friend me.” It’s become more a social networking command than a heartfelt request. It’s as if they’re becoming desensitized from overuse of the word.

In some cases I think this UCLA study needs a companion study of general word usage and decline to help us out in drawing conclusions.

For example, I think of the word “obliged” and “folks” in the same way – colloquialisms, verbal and written antiques.

I don’t know many people who use the word “obliged,” outside of Southern characters on TV like Vampire Bill in True Blood (“I’d be much obliged if you’d help me out by letting me devour all the faeries in town”).

Most people I know say, “I’d appreciate it.”

The word obliged means to be morally bound vs. the freer version which is to see the value of the assist. If we do know the difference and still choose appreciation over obligation maybe it is technology and education, as Greenfield says, forcing us to be more precise and parse the words.

As parents we need to keep current with the words social media platforms are using and how those news uses may subtly alter our kids’ perceptions and values over time.

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