Monday, October 7, 2013

Visualizing Legal History with Google Ngrams

Google has a fun little tool called the Google Books Ngram Viewer that measures the frequency of words in its vast Google Books database during a given range of years.  This is a great tool for studying the history of language and word usage.  For example, you can see the development of “American English” (and its deviation from “British English”) by plugging in the words “color” and “colour.”

Color and colour

But the Ngram is also an interesting tool for the amateur legal historian.  Plug in “counsel,” “lawyer,” and “attorney,” and you can see that the way we refer to members of the legal profession has reversed course over the last 200 years.

Counsel (yellow), lawyer (blue), and attorney (red)

You can also see how the profession itself has changed over the years.  For instance, searching for “law school” reveals that while there were a few law schools operating in the early 1800’s, law school didn’t start to overtake apprenticeship as a legal training method until the late 1800’s.  And searching for “paralegal” reveals just how new that position is.

Law school (blue) and paralegal (red)

You can see whole areas of the law come into existence.  Searching for “environmental law” shows what a watershed moment the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969 was.  And searching for “administrative law” shows the administrative state beginning to arise during the Progressive Era, and then really taking off during the New Deal.

Environmental law (blue) and administrative law (red)

You can see major legal milestones emerge.  Searching for “suffrage” shows the long, slow fight toward the 19th Amendment, with usage of the term peaking in the very late 1910’s.  Searching for “civil rights” reveals that the term was not often used throughout much of U.S. history, but began to be used more in the 1940’s and 50’s until peaking after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the rise to prominence of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Suffrage (blue) and civil rights (red)

You can see how our treatment of criminal defendants has changed over time by searching “public defender” and “plea bargain.”  You can see the concept of the public defender emerge in the early part of the 20th Century and take off in the years following the Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963.  And while plea bargaining has existed throughout much of our history, its usage increases after the Supreme Court’s 1970 decision in Brady v. U.S., and the increase in word usage reflects the increase in usage of the practice from the 1970s until now.

Public defender (blue) and plea bargain (red)

While this may seem like a fun little widget rather than a useful research or learning tool, it is worth remembering that many of us are visual learners.  Reading about the rise of the administrative state in a textbook may be enough for some people, but for others, visualizing it through an Ngram may be more helpful.  So, play around with it and see what you can learn!   

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