Word Clouding History




A lazy start to the morning, and I found myself messing around with word clouds. The above is a sample drawn from my book, Barry Commoner and the Science of Survival: The Remaking of American Environmentalism (MIT Press, 2007). A word cloud reflects the frequency with which words are used in a given text. Not surprisingly, “Commoner,” “environmental,” “science,” “public,” and “information” feature prominently. It is also interesting to note trends or foibles in my own writing—words not necessarily specific to the work upon which I seem to lean fairly heavily.

This is all a bit of fun, and perhaps a new kind of “academic” vanity searching, if you like. But it occurs to me that there is some intriguing utility in this exercise, and one that might be worth investigating further in a more research-oriented context. It would be interesting follow word-choice trends in media reporting on environmental issues over time, or develop a word cloud of the language of the toxic century, noting, too, the point at which certain terms or toxins enter our lexicon and the success of their integration (yesterday, for example, I lectured on the development of the environmental endocrine hypothesis, and how prior to the 1990s environmental fears almost exclusively focused on cancer as the environmental disease). Compiling further data on sustainability and sustainable development in United Nations reports or academic journal literature or newspapers might also yield some interesting results. Some of this data collection might be more effectively cultivated and presented in more traditional charts and tables, but there is something visually stimulating about the word cloud.

Perhaps this is worth introducing into the undergraduate classroom as some kind of research and analytical tool or assignment…