Saturday, December 7, 2013

Wheelmen - Rise and Fall (of the Use of that Word)

This is a somewhat random post, as I think about it in advance. Hmmm.

In the 1880s-90s, the term "wheelmen" was most commonly used word to describe (male) cyclists as a group. Therefore if one is using a search engine sort of approach to mining in the digitized newspapers of Chronicling America (up to 1923) or Google books, one will generally get more results using "wheelmen" than "bicyclist(s)" or "cyclist(s)."

This can be confirmed using an Ngram viewer that is available that works against the Chronicling America body of newspaper text. It returns the frequency of particular terms in the corpus over a period of time (here, 1865-1922).

Ngram results - wheelmen
"Wheelmen" (red line) rises - then falls (click image for more detailed view)

"Wheelmen" (the red line) starts up around 1890 and takes off, peaking in 1896-97, then falls just as quickly as it went up. By 1910 is practically gone. The terms "wheelman," "bicyclist" (which gets the plural also), and "cyclist" (also gets plural) have a similar trajectory to one another and also peak in 1896-97, but really it seems "cyclist" goes forward as the most used term - but not so much (per million words) as in the 1890s! (By the way, "wheelwomen" was also a term used during the late 1800s and the Ngram curve for it is like of "wheelmen" but on a lower level, going up, then down.)

Ngram results - bicycle
"Bicycle" (red) is overtaken by "automobile" (green) (click image for more detailed view)

When you open the viewer the "demonstration" search is for "telephone," "bicycle," "automobile," and "telegraph" - this shows the same rise and fall of all things bicycle in newspapers, which presumably reflects their significance in society, to some extent anyway. Of the four, "bicycle" shows the most dramatic rise - and then later, fall. It must mean something - but I'm not sure what - that the fall of "wheelmen" as a topic in newspapers starts before any significant discussion of "automobile(s)" in newspapers.

I was reminded of this in part by seeing a reference to the recently published book that uses the word "wheelmen" in the title about Lance Armstrong, Wheelmen: Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, and the Greatest Sports Conspiracy Ever - talk about "rise and fall." Do anyone still want to read about Lance? I'm surprised.

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