Saturday, December 18, 2010

Words in Flight

Google has gifted us with a fascinating tool for exploring the evolution of language as it surrounds and relates to any facet of human activity. The Google Books Ngram Viewer lets us query the vast corpus of books Google has digitized to learn how frequently a word or phrase of interest has appeared in print over the decades. How can we resist looking through this lens at the evolution of the language of aviation?

As usual, all of the figures below can be enlarged with a click.

We begin, of course, with aviation. The word is little seen until about 1905. Then it increases gradually in frequency of appearance until it experiences a significant "bump" in usage during the First World War. There is a plateau of increased usage in the 1930's, then a vast increase during the years of the Second World War. After that, usage declines to a fairly steady level from 1950 to the preesent of about 5/10,000'ths of 1 percent (or about 1 of every 200,000 words published in the English language. (At it's peak during WW II, for every 50,000 words printed in English aviation appeared once.)

But what shall we call these wondrous machines? Until about 1920, the clear leader was aeroplane (the blue curve). In the 1930's, airplane (red) and aircraft (green) came to the fore, about equally for a decade or so. Then aircraft became established as the most common term, perhaps because it encompassed such variants as rotorcraft and lighter-than-air vehicles. As is common, both terms experience the WW II "bump".

From about 1908 until the early 1920's, the term biplane (red) was more common than monoplane (blue). Then the tables turned and from the mid-1920's until 1950 or so, monoplane was predominant. After 1950, biplane once again overtakes monoplane in frequency of mention - not because of all the biplanes flying about but because the monoplane configuration had become the default in aircraft design. To complete the picture, the green curve shows the frequency for the term triplane, with a bump during WW I in honor of the Fokker and Sopwith exemplars.

In another battle of competing types, the mid-1930's can be seen as the heyday of the autogiro/autogyro (red/green respectively). These unusual rotorcraft briefly outdid the helicopter (blue) in literary frequency but soon lapsed into comparative obscurity.

We can look also at the terms for the lighter-than-air (LTA) types. Airship (blue) has always been the popular reference, but through the 1920's and 1930's dirigible (red) experienced significant popularity, thereafter declining. Blimp (green) emerged in the late 1930's and by the late 1970's had caught up to dirigible, but airship continues as the dominant term.

From before 1910 until the mid-1920's, flying machines operated mostly from an aerodrome (blue). But then airport (green) surged into dominance and has grown in popularity ever since. Airfield (red) had a period of significant popularity through the '40's and '50's (perhaps because of its being a preferred term in the military) but its usage has declined over the past half century.

What are we to call those who fly? Until about 1907, those magnificent men (always, then) in their flying machines were aeronauts (blue). Thereafter, aviator rises quickly to prominence and remains the dominant term. It's interesting that the usage of aviator is greater in the WW I years than in WW II. This may be due to the greater use of "pilot" in the latter period. (I've omitted "pilot" from this discussion because of the many alternate senses of the word (e.g., the maritime pilot, the "pilot project") that tend to confuse the relationships.)

Among the other terms applied to fliers in the early years was one that sputtered and failed to rise in popularity - airgonaut. This term was coined in 1784 in a letter by the English writer Horace Walpole. The ngram shows very occasional usage from 1840 to the present, but no sustained prevalence. A orphaned word!

The evolution of technology can be seen in the evolution of terminology. Here, one sees the term tailwheel being matched in frequency from the mid-1940's and then eclipsed from the early 1950's by the term nosewheel. This period corresponds closely to the shift from conventional landing gear to tricycle landing gear as the dominant design paradigm in aviation.

Another tale of technical evolution is seen in the rise in use of the terms blind flying or flying blind (blue/red respectively) from the mid-1920's (when aviators first began to seriously challenge the clouds) through WW II. The technological response, the autopilot, emerges in the war years and rises to considerable prominence in the '50's and '60's. In the same period, the earlier phrases fall into dis-use as the problems they represent fade also to insignificance.

As a last example, look at the terms for types of instrument approaches. The ILS Approach (blue) appears about 1945 and garners lots of attention from then on. In the mid-1950's the terms VOR Approach (red) and NDB Approach (green) emerge and over the next decades show substantial usage. But look at the trends after the year 2000! All of the "legacy" terms for instrument approaches decline in use. The rising curve (yellow) represents GPS Approach. And time marches on...

Again, the link to the engine that generates these comparison curves is: Google Ngram Viewer. Have some fun with it, but use caution, as it tends to be addicting.


Toriafly said...

Very interesting post and great research!!

Frank Van Haste said...

Thanks, Tori. It's fun stuff!