Searching for language

From selfie to wavy, everyday people turn to Google Search to learn definitions, ask questions, and find information. When we add up each of these moments and searches, we see interesting changes over time, like what year search interest in kale peaked or when during the year people search for cold brew coffee.

Recently we asked ourselves what it would look like if we explored trends around how language is changing and when new words enter into the conversation. This idea led to Year in Language, a new visualization that looks at language through the lens of Google Search.

The Year in Language showcases the top rising definitions in 2016. This year, for instance, triggered topped the list.

It also reveals the rise and fall of words. We looked to see when different words reached its peak and how fast or slow these terms grew over time. For instance, 2014 was the year of “fleek”, while “netflix and chill” first began to trend in 2015.

Finally, we analyzed how language spreads. We looked at regional trends to see which states were first or last to search for these words. “Woke” only reached peak search interest in the northeast and west, while “wavy” only took hold in Virginia.

To identify rising slang terms, we created a corpus of words that were searched alongside the terms definition, define, and dictionary on Google, such as “selfie definition” or “define selfie.” We then ranked these terms by their growth throughout the year.

What we found was that language can be amorphous, and our trending definitions weren’t just a list of new words, but also words used in new ways. While some may think of “juju” as good or bad luck, others think of the dance move.

We worked with Polygraph to help create the visualization for Year in Language, as a continuation of Google News Lab’s series of visual experiments, with Alberto Cairo as consultant art director. Year in Language is one of many projects that will investigate cultural trends through the lens of Google Search — be sure to keep an eye out for our next one soon.