Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


American lit in the 20th century wasn't exactly known for its cheer.

American lit in the 20th century wasn't exactly known for its cheer.

Overwritten, Maybe, But Less Overwrought

• March 20, 2013 • 2:00 PM

American lit in the 20th century wasn't exactly known for its cheer.

Researchers mining a Google books database report a decline in mood-related words in English-language books over the past 100 years.

There’s a widespread perception that we’ve gotten more touchy-feely over the past couple of generations—increasingly willing to express our emotions.

If so, it’s not reflected in our writing.

A new study finds that, in a large dataset of English-language books, the use of terms expressing six basic emotions steadily decreased over the course of the 20th century. “We believe the changes (in word usage) do reflect changes in culture,” writes the research team, led by anthropologist Alberto Acerbi of the University of Bristol.

Writing in the online journal PLOS One, they note that their findings mirror social conditions, with terms reflecting happy moods peaking in the 1920s and 1960s, and those suggesting sad moods reaching their apex in the war years of the 1940s.

Using WorldNet-Affect, which finds sets of words representing specific moods or emotions, the researchers searched Google’s Ngram database, which features scanned content of roughly 4 percent of all books published. They focused on terms representing six basic moods: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise.

They found that, overall, the use of words carrying emotional content decreased significantly over the course of the 20th century. They note this trend is not a reflection of more technical or scientific volumes coming out in later years; an analysis of a specific subset of books—works of fiction and literary criticism—found “a similar decrease in the overall use of mood words.”

Terms reflecting disgust had the steepest decline; of the six emotions studied, it was referenced the fewest times by the end of the century. Another negative emotion—fear—made a comeback starting in the 1970s, and continued to rise through the end of the century. (Given the anxiety-producing events of the early 21st century, there’s no reason to think it has reversed in recent years.)

Both of those trends are fascinating, for different reasons. Recent research has found a strong link between disgust sensitivity and social conservatism. Does the decline in references to disgust signal an increasingly liberal society, at least on issues such as gay marriage?

It’s also worth noting that the rise in fear-related terms coincides with what has been called “the great risk shift,” in which middle-class incomes have stagnated even as employment has become less secure. That insecurity seems to be reflected in our writing.

If the study rebuts one cliché, it confirms another. Americans really are more emotionally expressive than Brits—at least if our authors are representative of our respective cultures.

While writers from the two nations used such terms at roughly the same rate through the first half of the century, their writing styles began to diverge in the 1960s. By the end of the century, Americans used these terms far more than their fellow scribes across the pond.

This trend is paired with “a more general stylistic divergence” between writers on either side of the Atlantic, the researchers add. Compared with their more concise counterparts from the U.K., American writers increasingly use more “content-free words” such as prepositions, conjunctions, and articles.

This is the latest in a series of studies using newly available datasets to chart long-term trends in language. The researchers note that their results coincide with studies finding an apparent increase in narcissism over the decades, reflected in both word usage in books and the lyrics of popular songs.

What all this says about us is open to debate. But this study certainly provides an interesting new talking point. For all the talk of a therapeutic culture, it appears we aren’t wearing our hearts on our (book) sleeves.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.