A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Category: Digital Humanities

When Dwarfs Were Trendy

Rummaging through the Lansdall-Welfare database again, looking for Faërie creatures, I find only disappointment.  Was Georgian → Victorian → Edwardian → Georgian England such a prosy place?  “Fairy” doesn’t rank among the top million words, though “fairyland” just barely makes the cut.  “Elf” shows up only in 2-grams that look like “him elf” and “her elf”, which I interpret to mean that the letter “s” is poorly suited to optical character recognition.  Hobs, ogres, orcs, ettins, and goblins all appear, but just barely.  One in ten million words is their order of magnitude.  Dragons are 10-100 times more common than any of those; getting a job in heraldry was evidently a good career move.

Dwarfs, though, are almost impossible typographical errors.  There are dwarf fruit trees and so forth, but that should form a stable background against which we can see trends.  And so it appears.

increasing number of dwarfs in english publications

frequency of “dwarf”

The big spike in “dwarf” in 1938 is almost certainly Disney’s Snow White, but I’m going to pretend it’s also due to The Hobbit because The Hobbit has twice as many dwarfs.  (“Dwarves” doesn’t appear  in the database.)

But what’s with the dwarfs in 1871?  I consulted the fount of all trivial information, and found that 1871 saw the publication of Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, by Lewis Carroll and At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald.  Alas, no dwarfs in either, though MacDonald did throw in a dwarf primrose for me.  1870 saw the publication of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. [1] That seems like a stretch.  Google Books says the only books it knows about that mentioned dwarfs that year are two dictionaries.

General Tom Thumb made his world tour from 1869 to 1872, and he was in the British isles in 1871-2.  Let’s suppose that’s the explanation for the big spike in dwarf-mentioning in 1871. If we subtract out the gardeners’ background with a 10-year moving average, then the press mentions of dwarfs dropped by 75% from 1871 to 1872, which means he didn’t come home a minute too soon.


English newspapers are published by muggles.

[1] Also Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Finding meaning in that coincidence is beyond me.

Beating a Dead Tuna

After the “tuna/tunny” discussion in last weekend’s post, I came across a  digital-humanities paper that describes a truly formidable job of digitizing:

Lansdall-Welfare, T. et al. (2016). “Content Analysis of 150 Years of British Periodicals”. In: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

As the title says, they scanned every periodical they could find in Britain from 1800 to 1950, made a giant database of the million most common words, and put all their results on line. This is exactly the tool I need to address the Tuna question, without  American noise drowning out the signal I’m looking for.

First discovery: “tunny” didn’t make the cut.  It appears in books; apparently not in newspapers or magazines.  But there are, as the saying goes, plenty of fish in the sea.  The most-mentioned species are cod and haddock. Trout leads the freshwater contingent.  Tuna is lower in frequency than these by an order of magnitude, down among words that I don’t believe I’ve ever typed before like “pilchard” and “kipper”.

Fish mentions in the FindMyPast database
cod haddock trout pilchard tuna kipper
913,831 547,329 324,366 68,382 47,961 18,442

Second discovery: “tuna” doesn’t show an increasing trend over time.  The FindMyPast team uses an appearance-per-year metric (as does Google Ngrams), so the growth in references is corrected for the growth in the number of publications.  English periodicals are more likely to talk about trout and kippers since the end of the 19th Century, but not tuna or pilchards.  All the growth in the Google result seems to have come from the USA.

timelines of tuna, kippers, pilchards, and trout

Fish mentions in British periodicals

For what it’s worth, the big spike in “trout” in 1897 coincides with the re-publication of Izaak Walton‘s The Compleat Angler, edited by Andrew Lang of fairy-tale fame. [1] Was there a surge in interest in fishing, on which Lang capitalized?  Or was the book the reason for the increase in trout-mentioning?

Summing up the facts we have:

  1. “Tuna” was not prominent in texts in the UK at the time when Tolkien was writing The Silmarillion.
  2. There’s only a fifty-percent chance that people would have called that fish a “tuna”, anyway.
  3. Tolkien could certainly have known the Americans were making tuna into a household word.
  4. There is no sign that the word “tuna” would have intruded upon Tolkien’s notice from external sources as he was writing.

It is highly unlikely that JRRT would have thought the word “tuna” might have humorous resonances among his audience, but there is no scholarly merit to wondering about this issue.  Idiosophers just like playing with databases.

[1] There — a connection with speculative fiction, at last.

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