Could we be using fewer words associated with happiness and joy and more associated with fear in recent decades?
This effort began simply with lists of “emotion” words: 146 different words that connote anger; 92 words for fear; 224 for joy; 115 for sadness; 30 for disgust; and 41 words for surprise. All were from standardized word lists used in linguistic research.
The original idea was to have the computer program track the use of these words over time. The researchers wanted to see if certain words, at certain moments, became more popular.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the valleys and peaks matched large, societal and international events: the “roaring” ’20s were a high point for joy, while 1941 saw sadness dominate.
What is most surprising about the study, though, is that our use of “emotion” words is decreasing, with one interesting exception.
“Generally speaking, the usage of these commonly known emotion words has been in decline over the 20th century,” Alex Bentley says [who led the researchers]. We used words that expressed our emotions less in the year 2000 than we did 100 years earlier — words about sadness and joy and anger and disgust and surprise.
Ironic, considering the rise of “openness” and transparency in our society. Reality shows follow “housewives” (in the loosest sense of the word) practice keeping up with the Jones for national audiences, while singles pursue love in game show formats. Social media like Facebook and Twitter instantly transmit our highs and lows, snark and snide, to the internet, never to disappear. And blogs, like this one, turn anyone with access to the internet into a writer.
Yet, in spite of increased sharing, our language sounds like it may be losing its emotion, except for in one area: fear.
In fact, there is only one exception that Bentley and his colleagues found: fear. “The fear-related words start to increase just before the 1980s,” he says.
I don’t know why fear in our language has increased while joy, sadness, anger, disgust and surprise have decreased, but it gives me pause. “Fear is the mind killer,” wrote Frank Herbert, while Jesus of Nazareth counseled to “Fear not; only believe.” At a time when we as a nation face great problems–like how we deal with the mass murder of innocents like in Aurora, Colorado or Newtown, Connecticut, how we address rising costs of healthcare, and where we will find solutions to a sluggish economy and falling wages–fear is the last emotion we should let guide us.
Publius Online is participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, a month-long quest to post every day. Each day should match a letter of the alphabet. Today is the letter F.
- Fold Up Your Handkerchiefs: Books Have Gotten Less ‘Emotional,’ Study Says (artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com)
- Mining Books To Map Emotions Through A Century (prathambooks.org)
- Society of droids: Startling new research suggests humans are losing ability to process emotions (secretsofthefed.com)
- Expression of emotion in books declined during 20th century (sott.net)