Our Words, Our Selves

A fascinating David Brooks column in the New York Times this morning looks at shifts in the words we have used over the past half century, and makes a compelling case that our language–and perhaps, therefore, our society and our culture–has become more focused on the individual and less on the communal.  A Google database of millions of books published from 1500 to 2008 allows researchers to look closely at how words come into and out of popular usage over time.  One study of this deep, rich dataset show that words and phrases like “personalized,” “self,” “standout,” “unique,” “I come first” and “I can do it myself” have become more commonly used in the past 50 years.  By contrast, communal words and phrases like “community,” “collective,” “tribe,” “share,” “united,” “band together” and “common good” have become less commonly used, Brooks writes.

Another study finds “general moral terms like ‘virtue,’ ‘decency’ and ‘conscience’ were used less frequently over the course of the 20th century. Words associated with moral excellence, like ‘honesty,’ ‘patience’ and ‘compassion’ were used much less frequently.”  Brooks says the words we use tell a story about us.  “Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked,” he writes.

“This story, if true, should cause discomfort on right and left. Conservatives sometimes argue that if we could just reduce government to the size it was back in, say, the 1950s, then America would be vibrant and free again. But the underlying sociology and moral culture is just not there anymore. Government could be smaller when the social fabric was more tightly knit, but small government will have different and more cataclysmic effects today when it is not.”

“Evidence from crude data sets like these are prone to confirmation bias. People see patterns they already believe in,” Brooks concludes. “Maybe I’ve done that here. But these gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture. We write less about community bonds and obligations because they’re less central to our lives.”

Brooks doesn’t say so, but a similar case can be made about education.  We have almost certainly come to value personal outcomes — college and career readiness, getting a good job, earning a good living — over communal outcomes like citizenship and civic engagement.

Read the whole column here.


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