What happened in 1928? An unsolved Mormon literary mystery

Google has released a new tool to play with, its “Books ngram viewer,” which allows users to look at the frequency of word and phrase use over time, based on the data available in its Google Books program. By typing a word or phrase into the viewer, you can see the proportion (% of all words in Google Books) for the word or phrase each year. Since Google Books contains a large proportion of all works published in English each year, the results are likely a good indication of the word or phrase’s cultural impact in a year.

The tool allows you to restrict the Google Books database by a handful of different “corpus” (mostly different languages, but one corpus is “English Fiction” – presumably fiction in English). So, naturally, I selected the “English Fiction” corpus for the years 1820 to 2010 and typed in the word “Mormon” and immediately discovered a mystery:


The spike in the middle of the graph occurs in the year 1928, an it is at least four times the average year. If you click on the image, you’ll be given a new window with the ngram viewer for this graph, which includes links to search the books where Mormon is listed in Google Books. However, it doesn’t let you restrict the Google Books listings to the “English Fiction” corpus, so it is hard to tell what is going on. I glanced through many of the listings, but didn’t see anything that jumped out at me that would explain why Mormon was suddenly so popular a word that year, and not in any other year.

Running the “Mormon” query on a less restricted corpus (“English” for example) gives a similar 1928 spike, but also a very understandable spike in 1890 — accounted for by the announcement that year that the LDS Church would no longer practice polygamy.

So, I have no answer for this mystery. I tend to think that it must be related to fiction somehow, given that it continues into the fiction corpus when the 1890 spike does not. Any ideas?

Regardless of this mystery, I think this will be an interesting tool to play with and one that has the potential to yield insight both into how Mormons have been perceived in writing and how Mormons have used language over time.

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10 thoughts on “What happened in 1928? An unsolved Mormon literary mystery”

  1. A quick look at the 1928 corpus didn’t shed any light for me, but it did remind me of at least one of the results reflected in the spike: James Joyce’s Ulysses.

  2. A quick Google search revealed the following:

    * In 1928, additional land was acquired, giving the Church ownership of the entire hill. The Peter Whitmer Farm in Fayette, N.Y., was acquired Sept. 25, 1926.

    * In 1928 Gordon B. Hinckley began his studies in English at the University of Utah

    * And there’s a 1928 edition of the Triple combination for sale on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Triple-Combination-Mormon-Doctrine-Covenants/dp/B001K3OVT2

    Nothing useful but kind of fun to take 5 minutes to play detective. 🙂

  3. Wm (1) – Yes, I noticed Ulysses also. I didn’t know that Joyce had mentioned Mormons in it.

    Abel (2) — Ah, so the missing piece is why these would lead to more uses of the word Mormon that year than in other years.

  4. It’s possible that it’s an error in the data. I did a search for Mormon, and noticed two returns between 1800 and 1820–surprising considering the Book of Mormon hadn’t been published. In looking into the dates, it was clear that books had been mis-dated, as you can see here:

    click for link

    The first result shows the Deseret Weekly as being published in 1800.

    I wonder if there may be some results that, for whatever reason, were all thrown into 1928.

    If it’s not a flaw in the data, I’d look at historical events between 1920-1927. It may be that some historical even took place, and then a few years later, because of the heightened awareness, Mormons crept into popular literature.

    Wm edited this comment so it would show the link

  5. Wm says: Marion reposted because the first comment got trapped by the spam blocker. I’m leaving both comments because they are slightly different in content and taken together contribute to the conversation.

    It might be an error in data. I did a search for Mormon and found several small spikes between 1800 and 1820, before the Book of Mormon was published. It came from documents written in the late 1800s, but had been mis-categorized.

    Perhaps the 1928 spike is from an error in the data.

    If that is not the case, I’d look to see what popular fiction came out before 1928, that might have led to a lot of ‘copycats’. For example, Zane Gray’s Riders of the Purple Sage came out in 1912. Perhaps that is too early, but it was a groundbreaking book that may have led other authors to use Mormons in their own books a few years later. Or perhaps the book became popular a bit later, so it would fit.

    Also, there was a 1925 movie of Riders.

    Who knows. Fun to speculate.

  6. Sarah (4), “Trapped by the Mormons” was 1922.

    It should be noted that many of the books in Google Books are actually periodicals bound into books. Spikes could therefore happen because of things that happened that year.

    Marion (5), I agree that there is error in the data, but the errors are more likely the earlier the year, both because earlier works are less likely to have a year associated with them, and because more recent years have more data.

    I’d find the error issue more persuasive if the spike wasn’t so large, or if it included a year that ended in zero or in two zeros.

  7. I thought for a moment it might have been Arthur Conan Doyle’s visit to Utah (with tangental references to A STUDY IN SCARLET), but the creator of Sherlock Holmes visited in 1923, not 1928.

    Speaking of tangents, in 1928 according to FamousMormons.net, the highest paid actor in Hollywood was John Gilbert, Mormon. Also in 1928, the Park Brothers started negotiations with Orestes Utah Bean over a film version of CORIANTON. Neither of these, Kent, solve your mystery, though.

    My guess would be anti-Mormon books such as Mrs. W.A. King’s Duncan Davidson: A Story of Polygamy (Philadelphia: Dorrance, 1928). Wish I had my copy of Given’s VIPERS IN THE HEARTH to thumb through.

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