On spotting trends for your favourite clichés – warning: you could distract yourself for hours!

21 Mar

The Guardian’s Style Guide blog ran a brilliant article today about a little-known search feature within Google that allows you to see how words and phrases grow or decline in popularity over time. It’s the perfect tool to accompany any round of ‘buzzword bingo’!

To access the tool, simply search for any word or phrase – and then when the results are returned, you see a range of options on the left-hand side (e.g. pages from the UK).  At the bottom of this list is ‘More Search Options’ – and from that list, choose ‘Timeline’.

Google then searches Google Books and online newspaper articles – and will generate a little timeline graph of all the instances of that word or phrase.  (Remember to use “inverted commas” to search for every word in that phrase.)

There are countless examples in The Guardian article, and readers are encouraged to submit their own examples in the comments field.  I particularly like ‘the elephant in the room’, which is a phrase I first heard in about 2002.  It seems like the phrase really gained popular usage in the 1980s – and you can see its massive growth in the 1990s and 2000s.

The search engine isn’t 100% accurate as it can confuse a phrase used in a modern book about a historical event with a contemporary usage.  For instance, I looked up ‘mission creep’ – a foul phrase I learned when briefly contracting in the public sector that describes government and charitable bodies expanding their remit.  According to the timeline, ‘Mission creep’ first appears in 1550AD – but in reality, it appears to have been coined in the 1990s.

In honour of my football-loving husband, here are a few overused sporting clichés.

“Squeaky bum time” – I’ve heard this unattractive phrase several times in the last few weeks as the Premiership is still yet undecided.  The phrase was coined by Sir Alex Ferguson in 2002 – and we can see the usage of the phrase grow and grow across the rest of the decade.  The chart suggests it starts to fall out of usage in 2010 – but if the commentary on Radio 5 is anything to go by, this isn’t true!   I wish they’d stop using it.

“At the end of the day” (as meant in the same sense as ‘when all is said and done’) – this is harder to track as it also has a literal meaning – but if you view the timeline, you see a massive growth throughout the 1980s until the present day.  This usage by Princess Diana in 1995 is a good demonstration of its upward trajectory.

“It’s a game of two halves” – interestingly, this is a relative late-comer into the language.  Google identifies the first significant usage in an Independent article in 1995.  The phrase does grow in popularity – but appears to fall in and out of favour throughout the 2000s, and seems to be comparatively unfashionable at the moment.

“Bouncebackability” – many years ago, the TV show Soccer AM championed the word ‘bouncebackability’, a coinage by Iain Dowie, the then-Crystal Palace football manager in 2004.   People all round the country adopted the phrase and it became an in-joke to hear the word snuck into other communications, including the BBC Weather forecast!  I remember that one newspaper even started each feature with one of the letters of ‘Bouncebackability’, with the first feature starting with a ‘B’ and the last with a ‘Y’ and all the others in the right order in-between!

The phrase has remained pretty popular for the rest of the decade – with its top years being 2005 and 2010.  It would be interesting to analyse whether it had any seasonal usage – perhaps being used more commonly towards the end of a football season!

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