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 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

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.

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.