I learned about Google’s N-gram viewer from reading Eli Pariser’s new book The Filter Bubble (in stores and online as of TODAY — Order it!). The tool queries a “database spanning the entire contents of over five hundred years’ worth of books — 5.2 million books in total… [Pariser]” So you can see how often different phrases have been used in print, over many years.
I decided to try it out with the phrase “preaching to the choir”. Turns out its popular usage is pretty new:
Here’s the search in N-gram viewer.
The phrase “preaching to the choir” hardly appears at all before 1968, but climbed quickly and steadily since then (leveling off just a few years ago).
Think that means anything? All sorts of phrases come and go all the time, but that this coincides so perfectly with dramatic cultural trends of self-selection and self-segregation in U.S. society is interesting. Seems like it would make sense for the phrase to gain in popularity as more and more people perceived that they were becoming increasingly separated from folks whose worldviews and lifestyles differed from their own.
(For a deeper discussion of this trend of self-selection/self-segregation in highly industrialized societies over the past 40 years, read anything by Ronald Inglehart, or check out Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort, or read my review of it. And definitely check out Eli Pariser’s brand new book The Filter Bubble.)