Over on the Language Log blog, I saw a post by Ben Zimmer about “A New Chapter for Google NGrams,” which inspired me to check out the updates (also documented in a post by Jon Orwant on the Google Research blog).
Since my husband has been spending some spare time memorizing and documenting Racine’s “La mort d’Hippolyte” from Phèdre, I thought I’d look at the results for that. For starters, I used the phrases “La mort d’Hippolyte, Hippolytus, Phaedra,” hoping to get a sense of the relative mentions of the works by Racine, Euripides, and Seneca in the French corpus from 1800-2000.
Although it’s not clear from the thumbnail, there is an interesting spike for the phrase “La mort d’Hippolyte” in the dates of 1824-1830. Wanting to see this more clearly, I restricted the search to 1800-1840.
I then looked at the Google Books results for “La mort d’Hippolyte” in the French language for 1820-1830. These revealed that the majority of the results were in regards to a poisoning case that must have been famous in its time, that of the murders of the brother Hippolyte and Auguste Ballet by the physician Edme-Samuel Castaing in 1822 and 1823, respectively. There’s an English Wikipedia page about Castaing, which notes that this is thought to be the first instance of murder by morphine.
The new NGram viewer has advanced search options, documented at http://books.google.com/ngrams/info. I’m experimenting with some of these to try to refine my results. In this example, I tried searching for Phedre, Hippolyte, and the combination of Phedre + Hippolyte, which gives me a clearer impression of the number of times Hippolyte is mentioned relative to Phedre (since the total numbers are very small).
The effect is smaller than I’d hoped, and doesn’t really give me a way to narrow in on searches where Phedre is mentioned in combination with Hippolyte — it’s just a mathematical combination of the two result, which could be useful for synonyms and alternate phrases. I will continue to experiment.