The same problems bedevil the claim that we moderns reveal our essence in words we use more rather than less. Jean Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, and Brittany Gentile note that personalized and unique are up. Yes, but they replace words that once covered the same ground. Made to order has plummeted since the forties as personalized became more au courant, while unique picked up the ball from once-popular singular and ran with it. Discipline and dependability are up, and reveal us as focused on economic production and exchange? Dramatic notion, but what about how people a century ago were using steadfast even more than we use dependable now?
It’s hardly that the thesis that Americans think differently than they did a hundred years ago is mistaken—what would be unusual is if Americans did not. For example, it certainly means something that I come first is now a set phrase, of a kind that it is difficult to imagine a gaslight-era equivalent for.
However, the faddish attempt to apply the Big Data approach to social psychology via Google’s Ngram viewer tool will shed much less light on these matters than many expect. In any language, concepts are expressed by several words and phrases at any given time, all of which morph eternally with the passage of time. David Brooks’ Favorite New Theory of Language Is Wrong. An excellent corrective by John McWhorter.