Where Have All the Robots Gone?

What’s in a word? Letters. Vowels, consonants, grammar occasionally.

Words are by far the greatest invention of humanity. Words are singularly responsible for civilization – and all the great and good, and evil and bad that that implies. I’m not a logophile as such, but I do love words. It’s part of the reason I aspire to be a writer, working with words is fun, and usually quite safe. Though there are some very dangerous words out there.

Words do have power though, in theory they shouldn’t. When spoken their just a random collection of noises we’ve learned to pattern together, likewise when they’re written it’s just scratchings in a small place. But these patterns are ingrained on our childish brains, and reinforced through strict regimes of practice, and necessity. And because our brains aren’t perfect, those patterns get loaded with a load of useless data as well – whether it’s random trivia, a memory, or an emotion. We love to charge words with emotions, and the emotions give the words far greater intent.

So, when clearing out some of my Twitter favourites from the past three years, (on my personal account, rather than my newer and not yet swamped in favourites writer twitter account), I came across this little gem.

While you’re at it, check out the Google Ngram of “literally” use over the years: http://j.mp/gkxMHR

Posted back in June 2011.

The word literally doesn’t do a great deal for me, but as soon as you see that tool – you can’t help but start firing words at it. And so I did, and it’s amazing the stories you can see in the graphs it produces. I set the Ngram Viewer to English, rather than English fiction. I wanted to see the effect on the whole of the English language dataset, rather than on fiction. With fictional elements, and concepts, obviously the effect will be greater in the smaller fictional dataset. Have a play, and see what I mean.

So, to start with I used the theme from today’s flash fic, zombies:

Zombies on Google’s Ngram Viewer

From Word Usage Post

Which as you can see is a fairly recent trend to use it, though I’m intrigued to find the uses of it in the 20’s and 30’s. The word undead shows a similar pattern. I’ve circled the bit I find particularly interesting, zombies are big business at the moment, with a TV series of the walking dead, and a few films due. There’s a zombie survival fitness training app doing the rounds, and numerous live role-playing zombie games going on. Yet while it’s still rising, it looks to be staling, the speed of the rise is slowing considerably.

How about witches and wizards?

From Word Usage Post
From Word Usage Post

I can be quite harsh about Harry Potter, I don’t think it treats kids intelligence with respect, and while it has got millions of kids across the world reading, I don’t think it’s the best example of writing. But I’m an adult, and I was pretty much an adult when it was first published. That said, and all due respect, J. K. Rowling defined a trend, from the late 90’s onwards the usage of the word wizard in books sky rocketed. Witch on the other hand has had a more steady growth, in comparison.

Other magical creatures and beings like Vampires are also on meteoric rises, but nothing quite as sharp and quick as wizard.

From Word Usage Post

Monster was a good one, it’s actually a low usage term, it’s not very specific. What’s interesting as fantasy and science fiction were growing, it was declining – there are more and more ways to describe mythical monsters, with a new lexicon writers have relied less on a catch all. Though in the past couple of decades there has been a rise, (with many works, including tv, and games, featuring monster hunters, and many varieties of monsters, it has an affect).

From Word Usage Post

How about sci fi? I love sci fi, and while I love many genres, science fiction is probably my favourite of all. Now Science Fiction in some definition or another has been around a long long long time, (yes three longs), but as a specific genre, and focus of writer’s careers, it exploded in the late 1800’s, and and continued to expand through the 20th century. So, I figured some key words from science fiction should be interesting.

So, I’ll start with ‘alien’, though it’s not a great start, it has another common meaning that was it’s primary use prior to the explosion of sci fi – and is still used today to represent foreigners. Still, it’s closely linked with a lot of sci fi.


From Word Usage Post

As you can see, it does accelerate a lot at the turn after the 20th century commences, but it’s vogue wore off quickly, and it settled down again. Interestingly, things like Star Trek (the original series), and the many other sci fi shows of the 60’s and 70’s didn’t have a massive effect. Towards the end of the 20th century, there was another boom. Whether it’s because of the millenium, or just an increase in it’s feature on TV, (from the second Star Trek era, and with shows like X files), featuring heavily in the world. Aliens are firmly on a downward trend.

In contract, spaceship, is a relatively new word, and has enjoyed immense popularity – being a term that says what it means, and has no second common usage, and is less categorical to boot, the trend is far more direct and compelling. That said, I strongly suspect that peak at the beginning of the 80’s might have been something to do with the Space Shuttle. The trend at the moment though is on the wane.

From Word Usage Post

A fascinating trend to me was the difference between ‘ray gun‘ and ‘laser‘. While not a theme, or type of story, in conflict stories, weapons play an important part of the world and the characters. I don’t know about you, but my first thought for space based weapons was, and is lasers. What’s interesting is ‘laser’ is far more popular, but it’s usage has fallen off a lot, and continues to do so, while ‘ray gun’ is reasonably unpopular but is growing as a phrased used in English. That is something I’m definitely going to try and take on board with my future science fiction stories.

Why would I switch from something that is popular, even if it’s declining to something that’s unpopular, but growing marginally less unpopular? Because I think there’s a trend. Laser is a scientific term, and for a long term it dominated science, and it dominated science fiction, (as a tool – I know these aren’t themes in of themselves). Ray gun, it invokes a sense of the 50’s, but it’s also very non-specific as to what makes it work, you can label it with any particular type of ray, and method for generating that ray. Importantly it’s a term that isn’t diluted by science itself. Lasers, lasers are used in surgery, hair removal, measuring distances, sending signals, even fusing atoms now – as lasers have gone from scientific prospect and scientific fiction, its been diluted by the real world. Also the reality sets in as to what a laser can and can’t do, which damages the illusion that a writer is trying to create. Something like ray gun, it’s perfect as a replacement without being necessary to qualify, unless you want to spare the words to do so.

From Word Usage Post
From Word Usage Post

Robot‘ is a fascinating chart, it’s fairly uncommon prior to the 80’s, then has a huge popularity upswing, before settling down to a relatively low level.

From Word Usage Post

“Where Have All the Robots Gone?” is the title of this post for a good reason. Robots are thing that is here now, in some form, and has massive scope for development in the future, has shown in the imaginings of Isaac Asimov, and the counter universe of Battlestar Galactica,to implausible Transformers. There’s huge scope, ad some very possible examples, but it seems they are islands in the ocean. It’s a very underused topic for books, certainly as the primary concept. It’s something I think that is definitely a trend to explode, given the advancements we’ve made in the real world, (we’ve put robots on Mars, they build our cars, and blow up our bombs), it just needs some new talented writers to come around, there’s a lot of scope to tread new ground, rather than rehashing the old, and it could prove very popular again.

Certainly, i’m going to do some work in that direction myself. However, until writers embrace it, it’s possible not a theme that will trend much again.


So the point of all this is to say, how strong a word features in the skein of words that are published every year can be important. You could do this analysis on data produced about genre and theme, but they tend to be so unspecific as to be highly limited in their value for spotting new trends. The words dataset is a far bigger, and far more specific dataset. The words that are published year on year are the words that sell, regardless of where they are selling. Harry Potter shows that at it’s most extreme, it also shows that the word is stalling in popularity, that series had it’s day and the trend it drove, has gone away. A common theme of the fantasy based words is that they’re starting to stall, these have been the domineering stories of the past decade, but there’s a gap. Science fiction is at a low point, chances are that is due a major lift in popularity, and could fill the void.

I’ve not looked at other types of story telling, because it’s difficult to find words that are both synonymous and unique to those genres. Also, I do my best writing in the science fiction and fantasy circles. That’s where I’m looking for the next big trend as a result.  Whatever your type of writing is, if you want really want to make it, find where that type is going next.

I should point out, it’s a personal thing that I look for a new trend, writing for current trends is always a risk – trends always move on. You need to beat the curve to find success from trends, which means risking writing for trends that aren’t apparent yet, looing for those little tell tales, and patterns that suggest “there’s gold in them there hills”. Having said that, routes to market are a lot quicker now than it was ten years ago, a lot of writers are able to get books out there in weeks to capitalise on the current trend. 50 Shades of Grey would be a good case, and also a good example of a trend that is very short lived.

I’m an analyst though, by trade, and that mirrors in my writing style, so looking for the patterns in the trend, predicting what comes next – that would be where I choose to make my move. It does seem like sound advice though, if you really want to create a lasting legacy.

I’ve only explored a few terms in this post, I’ve fired dozens at the Ngram viewer today, there’s some fascinating insight to be had. Go ahead enjoy, look up words that interest you.

If you want to compare trends on it, rather than view them one by one, you can search for multiple words and phrases, but separate them by commas. If you’re looking to truly understand the data, it’s important to look at the comparisons, and not just the trend for the specific words, just to get the context. Below are the supernatural and science fiction collected searches to show you what I mean:

Supernatural Words

From Word Usage Post

Science Fiction Words

From Word Usage Post

I’ve saved the best chart until last. This chart goes to show that the old adage ‘crime doesn’t pay’ is very much wrong when writing fiction. It’s set against the English Fiction (2009) dataset, and is a list of genres (and some sub genres I’m interested in).

Genre Trends

From Word Usage Post

Just a quick note on this graph, it’s the words used within the body of writing, rather than the actual genre of what was published itself.

If you wanted to look at what your audience might want, there’s a fantastic post here, done by Fred Benenson based on data collected for a book about ideal bookshelves. I’m not going to steal directly from it, but the Profession vs Genre chart on there should prove invaluable for identifying who your target audience is, or for starting a new project targeting an audience.

I will by buying the book (My Ideal Bookshelf), as it sounds both fascinating, and useful for a writer to have.

Author: jllegend

Aye, there's the rub. Difficult to sum up succinctly. Crazy, most definitely. Funny, hopefully. Lovely, certainly. Interesting, essentially.

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