Now online: The Distance Machine

My latest project is The Distance Machine, a new tool for visualizing language change. The Distance Machine uses historical data about word usage to highlight words in a text that were unusual at a selected point in time.

The idea behind The Distance Machine is to raise a question that we do not often ask when reading material from the past: were some of the words in a text less familiar at the time it was published than they seem to us now? It is generally easy for us to spot words that are archaic, either relative to our own time or relative to the time when a text was written, but it is much more difficult to identify anachronisms that go in the other direction—instances where an author is ahead of their time.  Based on Google’s ngrams data set and a simple statistical model of how words go in and out of common use, The Distance Machine shows you which words might have stood out as unusual to a reader encountering a text at a given point in the past.

Read more!

Screen Shot 2014-08-04 at 11.50.06 PM(This is from the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.)