Modern Writers Use Fewer “Mood Words”

There’s a widespread perception that we’ve gotten more touchy-feely over the past couple of generations—but if so, it’s not reflected in our writing, notes Tom Jacobs on the Pacific Standard website:

“A new study finds that, in a large data set of English-language books, the use of terms expressing six basic emotions steadily decreased over the course of the 20th century. ‘We believe the changes (in word usage) do reflect changes in culture,’ writes the research team, led by anthropologist Alberto Acerbi of the University of Bristol.

Writing in the online journal PLOS One, they note that their findings mirror social conditions, with terms reflecting happy moods peaking in the 1920s and 1960s, and those suggesting sad moods reaching their apex in the war years of the 1940s.

Using WorldNet-Affect, which finds sets of words representing specific moods or emotions, the researchers searched Google’s Ngram database, which features scanned content of roughly 4 percent of all books published. They focused on terms representing six basic moods: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise.

They found that, overall, the use of words carrying emotional content decreased significantly over the course of the 20th century. They note this trend is not a reflection of more technical or scientific volumes coming out in later years; an analysis of a specific subset of books—works of fiction and literary criticism—found ‘a similar decrease in the overall use of mood words.’

Terms reflecting disgust had the steepest decline; of the six emotions studied, it was referenced the fewest times by the end of the century. Another negative emotion—fear—made a comeback starting in the 1970s, and continued to rise through the end of the century. (Given the anxiety-producing events of the early 21st century, there’s no reason to think it has reversed in recent years.)

Both of those trends are fascinating, for different reasons. Recent research has found a strong link between disgust sensitivity and social conservatism. Does the decline in references to disgust signal an increasingly liberal society, at least on issues such as gay marriage?

It’s also worth noting that the rise in fear-related terms coincides with what has been called ‘the great risk shift,’ in which middle-class incomes have stagnated even as employment has become less secure. That insecurity seems to be reflected in our writing.” (Read more here.)

Really interesting. When you read literature from other eras—novels and stories from the 19th century, for example—are you struck by any differences in their emotional content?

One Response to “Modern Writers Use Fewer “Mood Words””

  1. Bob Blake says:

    This is really interesting. I wonder how modern writers in the future would use “mood words.” Will it be fewer than today?

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