Drink, the great provoker (of words)

stack of books
How Google’s latest toy helps reveal the history of alcohol culture
Alcohol has played a complex, but persistent role in literature throughout history. Homer had the Cyclops fall asleep after drinking a bottle of wine to enable Odysseus and his crew to effect their escape; in Shakespeare’s Othello, Cassio’s foolish drunken brawl is the opportunity Iago has been waiting for to destabilise Othello’s world.
Now, thanks to the latest gadget from Google called “Google Npar”, researchers and inquisitive minds alike can enumerate and visualise alcohol’s presence (and indeed any other word or phrase) across “5 million books and 500 years”.
For example we can compare the mentions to “wine culture” vs. “beer culture” over millions of books written in English over the past 200 years:
Link to search
The scale shows the percentage share of mentions for each of these bigrams in the corpus of books for each year (it’s necessarily a relative measure to account for the different publication rates in each period). On this basis, mentions of “wine culture” dominate the pages from the mid 1800s to the late 1980s. The peak around 1860 seems to have a couple of causes: heated discussion of Gladstone’s tumultuous and ultimately successful reform of the UK wine duty system enshrined in the Treaty of Commerce of 1860, and a spike in American English publications about viticulture (34 American states were growing wine grapes by 1860).
winevsbeer
Things settle down in the wine world for the next hundred or so years, until the 1990s, when the notion of “beer culture” seems to take off, and keep pace with its wine counterpart for a good chunk of the decade. Since 2000 wine has again experienced a surge of interest, leaving beer in its wake. However it will be interesting to see what impact the craft beer brewing movement, which is becoming mainstream in the USA and making significant progress in other English-speaking markets, will have on this measure over the next decade.
Please follow the link to use this tool and share with us your own searches: Google Ngram
Further reading:
Nicholls, J – Wine, Supermarkets and British Alcohol Policy, www.historyandpolicy.org
Briggs, A – Wine for Sale: Victoria Wine and the Liquor Trade 1860-1984, Chicago University Press
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