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The Slow Decay of the English Language as Illustrated by the Titles of No. 1 Singles

on December 24, 2014, 11:38am

Over the last year, we’ve taken a closer look at the bands and artists that populate the charts and airwaves. We first examined rap’s most profane artists; MCs with the biggest vocabularies; the correlation between certain acts and SAT scores; and most recently, the rock bands with the largest lexicons. Now, we get even more specific by studying the song titles of Billboard hits throughout the decades.

Based on the graph below (via Prooffreader), it seems our song titles have evolved (devolved?) pretty drastically in the last 60 or so years. Not only are they becoming less specific, but we’re actually finding ways to shorten them to mere letters. Yes, it’s all rather a tad depressing.

For example, whereas 1.1% of all popular songs in the 1910s contained the word “Gems”, 1.1% of all popular songs in the 2000s contained the word — or letter, really — “U”. We may have once preferred the expressive “Twistin” (0.4% in 1960s), but now mostly enjoy the mundane “Yeah” (0.2% in 2010s). For a real shell shock, just do a side by side comparison of the key words from 1970s vs. 2000s: “Woman / Disco / Rock / Music / Dancin'” sounds far more impressive than “U / Like / Breathe / It / Ya”. (This coming from someone who put “Hey Ya! on nearly every high school mixtape.) Somewhere, my English Lit teacher is shaking her damn head.

To be fair, as Prooffreader points out, a change in diction could be related to the fact that, as time went on, it became increasingly unnecessary to include the genre of said song in the actual title. So, maybe it was important to label a song “Polka” or “Boogie” in the 1940s, whereas it’s pretty much an unheard of practice today. Another interesting thing to note is the proliferation of the pronouns “We” and “You/U” vs. words denoting familial relationships like “Uncle” and “Mammy”. This seems to suggests that, although our vocabulary may be growing duller and duller by the decade, our sense of inclusion beyond simply the family has expanded.

Check out the full graph below and head here for more information on the methodology behind it.

billboard charts The Slow Decay of the English Language as Illustrated by the Titles of No. 1 Singles

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