Like a great many people who are interested in word histories, I’ve been playing with Google Lab’s new toy, Ngram Viewer, this week. It generates comparative graphs for words and phrases from across the corpus of books which Google has scanned in a given language, weighted for number of books in each historical period. It still has some problems from Google’s careless OCR’ing, but is, nevertheless, useful for general trends.

Looking through relative patterns in food words, one which stood out for me was the sharp rise in words for sweets and candies during the World Wars: in other words, people talked most about what they could least have, when rationed. “sugar”, proportionately, was discussed about twice as often in the late nineteen-teens as it is in books today. (See chocolate vs. sugar)

The same is true of “caramel”, whose towering heights of frequency came around 1915. The use of the word “caramel” had been generally on the rise since its earliest-known mention in 1725. The OED says it derives from the same word in French, cognate to similar words in Italian and Portugese: but from where it comes before that, they do not commit.

Scheler suggests that the Spanish represents Latin calamellus little tube, in reference to its tubular form; Mahn thinks it from medieval Latin cannamella sugar-cane: an Arabic source is conjectured by Littré.

Toffee, whose proportional heights were around 1730, has been eclipsed ever since. (See a longer-term toffee vs. caramel)

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*© S. Worthen 2009