A scientific and linguistic analysis of data culled from digitized books shows that the English language remained relatively stable in the 20th century, with popular words and phrases falling out of favor at a slower pace as compared with past centuries.
The increased availability of digital information through initiatives such as Google Books makes quantitative academic research more feasible than ever. This access to copious amounts of digitized data allowed Slovenian researcher Matjaz Perc from the University of Maribor to analyze English-language books spanning five centuries. He discovered that during that time period, the English language has grown by about one-third. Additionally, he found that while the word “the” holds the distinction of most-frequently-used word between the years 1520 and 2008, the most common five-word phrases have changed quite dramatically since the end of the 16th century. In 1575, the top three phrases were “I have the honour to,” “Long Service and Good Conduct,” and “Lord’s Commissioners of the Admiralty.” By 2008, those top three phrases were supplanted by the following: “at the end of the,” “on the part of the,” and “in the middle of the.”
Perc found that popular words and phrases—referred to as “n-grams” in the study—went in and out of style much quicker in the 1500s, often being given the linguistic boot after just a few years. It wasn’t until the end of the 1700s that the English language’s list of top 100 phrases began to stabilize. Today common turns of phrase can live on for decades.
From a mathematical point of view, a snowball effect of sorts seems to be at work with these commonly used words and phrases. Once a particular phrase becomes popular, its popularity continues to grow and grow, making it less likely to be phased out of the language in the near future. And so, for better or worse, it looks like those well-worn clichés are here to stay.