Have we really become more selfish, and can we tell it from studying our word use? According to news reports of a study by Patricia Greenfield (no relation, I assume), we have, and we can. Apparently, using the publicly available and utterly brilliant Google Ngrams tool, Prof Greenfield examined more than 1.5 million books and found that the use of words such as “obliged” and “give” has dropped in frequency in English-language books, while words such as “get”, “child”, “unique”, “individual” and “self” have become more common.
I can’t get hold of Prof Greenfield’s study so I have to be a bit careful about this, but I’m sceptical. I should note that the stories don’t seem to quite represent her own position: she is quoted as saying that her findings suggest an increase in “individualism” and “materialism”, which isn’t quite the same as “greed” and “self-interest” and “self-centredness”, which is how it has been reported. But even so, I think we should take the findings with something of a pinch of salt.
For instance, she suggests that the fact that “obliged” and “duty” have become less common reveals that we are less bound by these concepts than we used to be. But “much obliged” was once a commonly used phrase for “thank you”, in a way that it rarely is now; that could account for a significant amount of the drop. Likewise, while “duty” has dropped in frequency, “responsibility” has increased (and “obligation”, interestingly, has stayed steady). I think a large amount of the change could simply reflect random changes in word use.
Similarly, the use of the word “get” has indeed increased, but so has the use of idiomatic phrases like “get away”, “get in”, “get out” and “get up”, over roughly the same period. The idiomatic phrase “give over”, meanwhile, has dropped significantly more quickly than has the word “give”. This sort of change in speech fashion could well play a large part in observed changes in the use of a word, without having any reflection of how often we mentally employ the underlying concepts.
As I say, I’m loath to criticise a scientific paper having only read the press release version, and sincere apologies to Prof Greenfield if she’s already addressed these concerns. But I know how much people like to jump on the “the English language is going to hell” bandwagon, and if they can hitch it to the equally popular “our society is falling apart at the seams” bandwagon, so much the better. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that society is more individualist, for better or worse, than it used to be, but I’d be extremely careful about using this as evidence to support the hypothesis.