Tracking the Development of ‘Development Speak’

A few weeks ago Google released a searchable word frequency database called Books Ngram Viewer that enables users to pull data from 5.2 million books written between 1500 and 2008. By listing a series of words or phrases, separated by a comma, users can instantly chart and compare word usage totals  from a bank of over 500 million words used in English, French, Spanish, German, Chinese and Russian.

While many linguists have complained about a surge of poorly interpreted data sets that have dominated various blogs since the launch of the tool, I still felt inclined to have some fun and see what’s trending in development literature.  I’ve drawn out a few comparisons below featuring words commonly referred to when discussing development.  This data is outlined in the following graphs, which cover 30 year period, from 1978 – 2008.  I have also included a small disclaimer highlighting some of the shortcomings inherent in the outlined datasets.

Now…on to the data! (Click the graph for a full size version)

Poor? Third World? Developing?

Social theorists like Bordeaux and Foucault, among others, have highlighted the extent to which language operates not only as a method of communication but as a site in which power relations are defined and maintained. How people speak about developing countries has been a part of that debate for decades. Curiously, ‘Third World’, a term many have deemed as dated, was still used most often in books published in 2008 (despite its steady decline).

Modernization and Dependency Theories

While dependency theory came largely as a response to modernization theory, it seems to have peaked while modernization theory continues to be more frequently discussed. Perhaps this is due to the multi-disciplinary usage of modernization theory? Or is the issue language? The results on this graph are generated using English texts. It may be worth comparing these results using a Spanish corpus as well given the dependency theory’s Latin American origin.

The ‘Development’ Doers (Charity/NGO/Civil Society/CSR)

While many of these terms overlap, I have met many people who have a growing distaste for the term charity, or a growing interest in CSR (corporate social responsibility).  Despite this, it seems more and more books are discussing ‘charity’.  Is this an issue of multiple meaning or a result of what seems a decade of natural and economic disaster?

Health Issues (AIDS, Malaria, Tuberculosis, Polio)

While it seems of little surprise that AIDS is the most discussed, it is worth mentioning that almost as many people died in 2009 of tuberculosis as they did of AIDS according to UN statistics.  As someone who is working in the AIDS sector, I also find it disheartening that the AIDS is becoming a less prevalent word, and that other diseases have been generally steady dispite increased advocacy work in recent years, especially with regard to malaria and tuberculosis.  It would be interesting to compare word usage data from books with data from social media during the last few years.  If I can find the data online, I will definitely write a follow-up post.

Some Terms: Participatory Development, Human Development, Sustainable Development, Social Capital

This was the first search I looked up.  While there is no major relationship between these overlapping terms, it is interesting to see which ones are making the printing press most.

Perspective: A few from each…and Bono.

Because the scale is different on each chart, I thought I would pull a few terms from each graph to give a general idea of how they compare across the board.  I also threw in Bono for reasons that need little description.  While Edward De Bono makes up some of the early results, his influence wanes and is slowly replaced by U2’s Bono during the last decade or so.

Please Share your thoughts!

These are just a few possible comparisons. To make your own check out Books Ngram Viewer. If you come up with some cool graphs in any language please leave a comment below with the graphs URL address!


1. The following comparisons reflect words printed in published books and therefore exclude peer reviewed scholarly journals. This obviously affects the results as many of the above terms are not widely used outside of academia (I.e. Sustainable development is likely more common outside of academia then participatory development)

2. Terms like “development” and “sustainability” are left out because their use ranges multiple disciplines (I.e. Software development etc.)

3. The search is run in English. Certain terms would likely be influenced by this, i.e. Dependency theory would return higher results within a Spanish corpus due to its Latin American origin.  A quick search of ‘dependencia’ confirms this, albeit, the phrase still peaks between the 1990’s and 1980’s in both Spanish and English.



Categories: Technology


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