Semantic drift

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From Jen Sorensen:

This seems accurate — but if the referents have been steadily broadening, what explains the secular decay in Google Ngram frequency of "the establishment" since the end of the 1960s?

And what was the peak in 1945?

Update — as suggested in the comments, and as this graph below also suggests, many (if not most) instances of "the establishment" in the Google Books archive are irrelevant to this comic.


  1. Keith said,

    April 15, 2021 @ 11:06 am

    And what was the peak in 1945?

    Er, the establishment of a lasting peace in Europe?


  2. Bruce Rusk said,

    April 15, 2021 @ 11:07 am

    1945: The founding of the UN?
    Over 80% of "the establishment" is "the establishment of" (see this ngram plot).
    To figure out the changing usage you'd need to exclude "establishment" in the sense of "founding."

  3. Bruce Rusk said,

    April 15, 2021 @ 11:18 am

    Or <a href=""this more useful plot, of (the establishment is + the establishment has + the establish will). It peaks in 1968.

  4. Cervantes said,

    April 15, 2021 @ 12:56 pm

    Just count me as an antidisestablishmentarian.

    BTW, ABC news headline of the day:
    Police charge man with ax near Buckingham Palace

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 15, 2021 @ 1:19 pm

    To the extent there's truth to the comic, the historical point is that those who were American college students circa 1968 et seq fulminating against The Establishment in many cases grew up to occupy the exact same social niche with the accompanying wealth and power but tried to maintain an increasingly implausible self-image as daring outsiders Speaking Truth to Power(tm) and whatnot. Put another way, the term was used pejoratively with sufficient success that after a while no one wanted to use it for self-identification.

    Although this reminds me of an anecdote about the Hon. William Hastie (1904-76), who was the first black federal appellate judge in U.S. history, as told at a memorial service by his friend Kenneth Clark (1914-2005, who was the first black tenured professor at CCNY and the first black president of the American Psychological Association). Sometime in the late '60's, Judge Hastie gave a talk to a group of students at Temple University, and when it came time for the audience Q & A:

    'One of the black students in the audience stood up and prefaced his remarks to Bill Hastie by accusing him of being a spokesman and an apologist for the Establishment. Bill stopped him just at that point and said: "Young man, stop, stop right there. I want you to
    understand something. I am not a spokesman for the Establishment. I am not an apologist for the Establishment. I AM the Establishment."'

  6. D.O. said,

    April 15, 2021 @ 2:56 pm

    I have always assumed "the establishment" to be a British thing, but n-gram doesn't bear it out. But as far as modern finger-pointing goes "the elite(s)" is taking over ot at least encroaching on "the establishment" (this is my best n-gram effort).

  7. bks said,

    April 15, 2021 @ 4:06 pm

    Never trust anyone over 30.

  8. Bloix said,

    April 15, 2021 @ 9:11 pm

    Try running an ngram for the Establishment instead of the establishment and you'll see a steep run-up to a peak in 1970 and then just as steep a drop-off.

  9. Narmitaj said,

    April 16, 2021 @ 2:26 am

    There is also The Establishment, a satirical club in London (and New York), co-founded by Peter Cook in the early 60s to poke fun at The Establishment.

    "To be a member of this club, was to literally but not figuratively be a 'member of the establishment'. Peter Cook called it 'the only good title I ever came up with.'"

  10. Tim Rowe said,

    April 16, 2021 @ 3:46 am

    Or as on a birthday card I one received: Never trust anyone over 3̶0̶ 4̶0̶ 5̶0̶ 60

  11. mollymooly said,

    April 16, 2021 @ 10:24 am

    Wikipedia's synopsis of Owen Jones' 2014 bestseller The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It lists the various components of Jones' putative Establishment, and quotes a [right-wing] Spectator review that the book "would be better titled as The Consensus: And How I Want to Change It".

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