Comparison of genocide terminology, 1938-2008



A simple comparison of occurrences of the terms generated through Google Books Ngram Viewer.
When you enter phrases into the Google Books Ngram Viewer, it displays a graph showing how those phrases have occurred in a corpus of books (e.g., "British English", "English Fiction", "French") over the selected years.
While planning some material to go into the introduction of my doctoral thesis on genocide and the Roman Middle Republic, I was thinking about the rise of the field of genocide scholarship. So I plotted out some of the terminology to see what trends in the words might reveal, using this lexis as a proxy for the prevalence of academic works on genocide, rather than works specifically about them. One of the advantages of Ngram Viewer is that the results are always expressed as relative to the corpus as a whole, which both takes into account the growth of those corpuses over time as more and more is produced annually, as well as what one might call the popularity of the term(s) (although one might hesitate to describe this subject area in terms of popularity).

As I had expected, it shows that the term genocide has come to overtake and replace holocaust as the most popular term. The weak inverse relationship between them suggests that the rise of 'genocide' has been at the cost of 'holocaust'. This of course is to be expected in light of the methodological shift away from the European WWII focus towards more holistic concepts of genocide as generated through academic discourse and the development of international legal and jurisprudential normative frameworks. I was however a little surprised at the cross over point of 1986, and had thought that the date of replacement would have been about a decade later into the mid-1990s, when events in Rwanda and Bosnia shifted media focus to the wider implications of genocide. What is probably more important than the crossover is that 'genocide' begins to gain in popularity from the late 1970s, as the Killing Fields of Cambodia became internationally recognised, and that there is a constant increase in popularity from 1982, perhaps associated with the First International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide, and its proceedings the following year. If this link could be made (and I've not probed it) then it would suggest an immediate impact of that academic event on the corpus, and evidence an transformative power on discourse.

The term 'holocaust' fell quite rapidly from the middle of the 1980s whereas 'ethnic cleansing' gained rapidly from its inception as a category in 1989 to a peak in 2002, without doubt associated with the Bosnian situation. From that apogee, it has tracked the gentle down curve of the term 'holocaust', suggesting that 'genocide' as taken assimilated it too, judging by its inverse uptick.

Urbicide seems to have always been an unpopular alternative, and probably barely lives beyond the niche literature.

Interestingly 'holocaust' was actually roughly 70.7% as popular at the start of this graph, predating WWII, as at its end in 2008. This suggests that its generic usage as an all consuming fire was greater than we might commonly assume prior to its adoption as the term for the Nazi extirpation of the European Jews.

I ended the graph at 2008, partly to occlude the influence of recent developments in international law and reports associated from the rise of Islamic State. It also made the graph range a nice, tidy 70 year span.

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