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Japanese earthquake and tsunami search trends

The dictionary may well seem like a passive object – for hundreds of years it has been a sedentary repository of words, sitting idly on a shelf waiting to be picked up and used. But if you had the ability to make it an active object, one that could tell us what words people were looking for each hour of each day over the past few hundred years it would be enormously illuminating, providing information on the terms people need to resort to a dictionary for.

The online dictionaries that we have today do have this capability, as can be illustrated through analysing the page views of certain words in Oxford Dictionaries Online in the days before, during, and after the recent tragic events in Japan.

Looking at four words (tsunami, earthquake, aftershock, and meltdown) in the days before the recent disaster in Japan we see that they have a small number of page views – none of the words was looked up more than 11 times in any given day prior to March 11th. On that day the number of times that tsunami was looked up increased dramatically. The page views for the other three words increase as well, although not as dramatically. It is not terribly surprising that tsunami would be searched for more often; it is a relatively recent (late 19th century) import from Japanese, and more people are uncertain as to its meaning, pronunciation, and origin than the other words.

Over the next few days tsunami was still looked at many more times than usual, and as the potential risk of a nuclear disaster became apparent, meltdown also began to receive considerably more attention.  The page views for earthquake remained more or less static, although it was still looked at more than prior to the disaster, as was the case with aftershock.

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