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Sunday 13 July 2014

Fortean Trends

Since I renamed this blog Retro-Forteana, I thought it would be interesting to look at changing trends in Fortean topics over the years. At one time, Fortean Times used to produce an annual Weirdness Index based on the number of press reports in different subgenres of Forteana. This strikes me as being in the true spirit of Charles Fort, and it’s a pity they don’t seem to do it any more.

In lieu of that, I decided to turn to Google’s N-gram viewer. I’ve already mentioned this addictive online utility once, in my post about Spooky Action at a Distance. Basically it allows you to see how the popularity of a specified word or phrase has changed over time. After searching through millions of digitized books it returns, for each year in a specified range, the percentage of all the books published in that year that include the given word or phrase.

You can waste hours playing with the N-gram viewer, but here are a few charts I thought were particularly interesting (you may need to click to enlarge them in order to see what is going on).

Chart 1: Fortean specialisms

This chart plots three words that are only ever going to appear in Fortean specialist literature. “Fortean” itself first makes an appearance in the 1930s, around the time of Fort’s death. It rises steadily until the 1950s, at which point it suddenly shoots up. I’m not sure why this is, or why it drops back down again equally suddenly in the early sixties, After that it starts to climb steadily again, reaching a peak around 1999 (remember pre-millennial tension?). It plummets down in the 21st century almost as fast as it was rising at the end of the 20th century.

The word “ufology” seems to emerge circa 1960, after which it follows a similar pattern to “fortean”. The post-millennial dip – which appears to confirm the widespread view that ufology is in decline – is almost certainly real, and not just a statistical artifact (you might think, for example, that it just means there are fewer books from recent years in Google’s database – but remember that what’s shown is not the number of books containing the word ufology but the percentage).

“Cryptozoology” is a newer word than either Fortean or ufology, only dating from circa 1970 – but it’s in a healthier state, displaying a steady increase which continues to the present day.

Chart 2: Sasquatch versus the Loch Ness Monster

In a head-to-head between the world’s two best known cryptids, the Loch Ness Monster got off to an early start in the early 1930s, then received a boost during the 1970s – but apart from that shows no strong trends either upwards or downwards. In contrast, Sasquatch got off to a slow start in the 1950s, before suddenly shooting up (and overtaking its Scottish rival) between the mid-60s and mid 70s. Then after a fairly static period, Sasquatch received another huge boost in the 90s.

Neither Sasquatch nor the Loch Ness Monster appear to suffer from the post-millennial let-down that UFO-related subjects do (more on which later).

Chart 3: Paranormal versus Parapsychology

I stumbled across this one more or less by accident, but I thought it was very interesting. The two “para” subjects make their appearance around the same time in the 1940s, and follow virtually the same pattern until 1980. But at that point there is a sudden divergence – “parapsychology” goes into a steady decline, while “paranormal” continues its upward trend.

Chart 4: UFO versus flying saucer

Not surprisingly, “flying saucer” makes its first appearance in the late 40s (following the Kenneth Arnold sighting) and rises through the early 50s. After that it’s more or less constant right up to the present day.

“UFO” starts a few years after “flying saucer”, but overtakes it by the early 60s. It then climbs at an impressive rate for two decades, remains more or less static through the eighties, and then shoots up again in the 90s. Then it hits that millennium barrier and starts to plummet back down again. There’s no getting away from it – UFOs just aren’t as popular as they used to be.

Chart 5: UFO topics

For this last chart, I typed in a few two-word phrases that are only going to appear in specialist UFO literature. As you can see, they all appear to suffer from that post-millennium crash. In the case of “Zeta Reticuli” and “Roswell incident”, the peak of interest is pretty much bang on the year 2000. With “Area 51” it’s a couple of years later. And with “crop circle” (maybe not strictly a UFO topic, but closely related) it’s 2005. But the decline after that point is unmistakable, even though Google’s database stops at 2008.


JoshuaBBuhs said...

The uptick in the use of the word 'Fortean' in the early 1950s is almost certainly a by-product of all the UFO books being published then, many of them making reference to Fort or the Fortean Society.

As far as the decline at the end of the decade, it's worth noting that Tiffany Thayer, who ran the Fortean Society, died in August 1959, and the Society went defunct.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Joshua - I wasn't aware of that last point, but it's probably highly relevant. Although the N-gram viewer says it's based on digitized "books", it almost certainly includes certain types of periodicals as well. So if the Fortean Society produced a regular journal, with 6 or 12 issues per year, and then suddenly stopped putting it out, that might easily explain the sudden drop.