Random Instances of the Phrase “Like Fire” #5-#258,000

The week leading up to Christmas and the New Year is never a great one to get any real work done, and here’s an extra reason why: Google has gone public with its Google Books Ngram Viewer, which analyzes data from its vast library of digitized books. Trends for words or phrases can be compared within a date range and corpus (i.e. American English, British English, English Fiction, French, Russian), and the results are endlessly fascinating.

According to Search Engine Journal, “The company hopes that further studies may be able to use the information to enhance understanding of cultural diffusion, innovation, censorship, and more.” That’s all well and good, but in the meantime there are a number of other pressing data analyses: peanut butter vs. jelly, dogs vs. cats, Godzilla vs. King Kong, shaken vs. stirred. Over at Information is Beautiful they’ve run some fun queries—the chart for the mention of each decade is quite beautiful. A quick search turns up some interesting riffs on themes, like Ego sum Daniel, who first looks at evolution, Evolution [Ngram is case-specific], Darwinism, and natural selection, and proceeds from there with some really interesting results. If you’re tempted to plug dirty words in there, Search Engine Land advises you that the pesky medial “s” in older documents—think “Congrefs” in the Bill of Rights—will skew your results for “fuck.”

A query for the literary uses of like fire between 1800 and 2000 turns up a good 258,000 results, peaking around 1870. Much of that seems to be Biblical: God pours out his wrath like fire at several points in the Old Testament. And as The Bible Christian Magazine pointed out in 1866, “The great truths of the Gospel, when rightly presented, scorch like fire, quicken like fire, melt like fire, refine like fire, and mould like fire.” On the other hand, Like Fire in title case returns a few weird early spikes—between 1802 and 1810, then nothing until 1870-1879, ramping up as the 20th century progresses until it takes off suddenly around 1948 and climbs steadily into the 21st century. One can only hope that when a comprehensive history of the literary blog is published, “Like Fire” will rise yet another notch.

As Google says in its launch statement, “One of the advantages of having data online is that it lowers the barrier to serendipity.” We’re all for that.

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