This article engages with current debates about linguistic usage in a new way. It examines linguistic change, the shifts in frequency of usage of ‘aristocracy’, both qualitatively and quantitatively, at specific moments and over time, in print during the period 1700 to 1850. Digital resources are utilized to provide broad quantitative evidence not previously available to historians. The potential use and value of digitized sources is also explored in calculating the volume and frequency of keyword appearance within a broad set of genres. This article also examines qualitatively usage of ‘aristocracy’ by contemporaries and historians and concludes that historians have often used the term anachronistically. It reveals that for much of the eighteenth century ‘aristocracy’ was entirely a political term confined primarily to the educated elite but that by 1850 it had become a common social descriptor of an elite class. It also compares the trajectory of usage of ‘aristocracy’ with that of ‘democracy’ and accounts for the divergence in such usage. It is argued here that analysing the prevalence and usage of ‘aristocracy’ in contemporary contexts reveals an important narrative of linguistic changes that parallel shifts in political and social culture.