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

November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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