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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 May 2013

The Open University
History Department, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7


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.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2013 

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32 Anon., Glossographia Anlicana nova: or, a dictionary, interpreting such hard words of whatever language, as are at present used in the English tongue (London, 1707); Curzon, H., The universal library: or compleat summary of science (2 vols., London, 1712), i, p. 188Google Scholar.

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40 ECCO revealed sixty-nine hits for ‘natural aristocracy’ using all fields, including EEBO; certain texts appeared in many editions.

41 Harrington, James, The oceana of James Harrington, esq; and his other works: with an account of his life prefix'd by John Toland (Dublin, 1758), pp. 47, 57, 253Google Scholar.

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43 For example, Anon., The contrast, a political pasticcio; or an estimate of the coalition-ministry (London, 1784), pp. 3–4; Private volunteer (Memmius), The voice of the people, in a letter to the secretary of his grace the duke of Rutland (Dublin, 1784), pp. 45–6.

44 For example, Anon., Thoughts on the idea of another coalition (London, 1784), pp. 19–21.

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47 Williams, Letters on political liberty, pp. 43–4, 13. See also Price, Richard, Observations on the importance of the American Revolution (1785), in Thomas, D. O., ed., Richard Price: political writings (Cambridge, 1991), p. 116Google Scholar.

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49 See Langford, Polite and commercial people, pp. 565, 691–2; Colley, L., Britons; forging the nation, 1707–1837 (London, 1992), pp. 148–9Google Scholar; Hall-Witt, J. L., ‘Reforming the aristocracy: opera and elite culture, 1780–1860’, in Burns, A. and Innes, J., eds., Rethinking the age of reform: Britain, 1790–1850 (Cambridge 2003)Google Scholar.

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51 Deutsch, ‘Moral trespass’, p. 637; Hall-Witt, ‘Reforming the aristocracy’, pp. 220–37.

52 For a full discussion see Goodrich, Debating England's aristocracy, ch. 2; Wahrman, Imagining the middle class, pp. 35–6; McNally, D., ‘Political economy to the fore: Burke, Malthus and the whig response to popular radicalism in the age of the French Revolution’, History of Political Thought, 21 (2000), pp. 427–47, at p. 430Google Scholar.

53 Thomas Paine, The rights of man, ed. E. Foner (London, 1985), pp. 82–3.

54 Ibid., p. 82.

55 See Goodrich, Debating England's aristocracy, chs. 2, 4.

56 McNally, ‘Political economy to the fore’, p. 430.

57 Thelwall, John, Rights of nature against the usurpations of establishments (1796), in Claeys, G. ed., Politics of English Jacobinism: writings of John Thelwall (University Park, PA, 1995), p. 476Google Scholar. See Goodrich, Debating England's aristocracy, ch. 4.

58 For a useful summary of the significance of public opinion see Lee, George Canning, pp. 114–71.

59 See Goodrich, Debating England's aristocracy, for a full discussion of the loyalist response.

60 Ibid., pp. 18–19.

61 ‘Seventeenth parliament of Great Britain: fourth session, 13 June 1794’, House of Commons, Debates, p. 399.

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64 A skim-read of this text did not reveal any further usage of ‘aristocracy’.

65 Epstein, Radical expression, p. 71.

66 Webster, Noah, A compendious dictionary of the English language (New Haven, CT, 1806), p. 17Google Scholar; Walker, John, A critical pronouncing dictionary and expositor of the English language (21st edn, London, 1819), p. 31Google Scholar; Crabb, George, A dictionary of general knowledge (3rd edn, London, 1833), p. 31Google Scholar; Barclay's new universal English dictionary (London, 1835), p. 57; Chamberlain, Eliza, Chamberlain's young scholar's new English dictionary (London, 1846), p. 63Google Scholar. A number of the dictionaries published in the nineteenth century have editions stretching back to the eighteenth century. According to the British Library Catalogue, John Walker's Dictionary was published between 1774 and 1868 and Samuel Johnson's Dictionary between 1756 and 1866 with fourteen editions plus a number of miniatures.

67 Samuel Johnson, Dictionary of the English language, ed. Rev. H. J. Todd (London, 1818).

68 They were in power for seventeen of the years between 1830 and 1852; Mandler, Aristocratic government, p. 3. For examples of contemporary usage see Maj. Cartwright, Address to the electors of Westminster (1819), in Cobbett's Weekly Political Register, 24 Dec. 1831, issue 13; Octogenarius, ‘The bill’, in The Examiner, 26 Jan. 1831, issue 1221; Anon., ‘Letter to the editor’, Caledonian Mercury, 8 Dec. 1831; William Shepherd, ‘Advice to electors and reformers’, in Liverpool Mercury, 18 May 1832.

69 Cobbett's Weekly Political Register ran for thirty-three years from 1804. He switched to radicalism increasingly from 1804.

70 Ibid., 29 June 1816.

71 Ibid., 22 Nov. 1823.

72 Ibid., 27 Nov. 1824

73 Ibid., 23 June 1832.

74 Ibid., 8 Oct. 1831, 23 Apr. 1832.

75 Wade, John, The extraordinary black book (London, 1831), pp. 284, 296Google Scholar.

76 The Republican, Dec. 1831, pp. 193–6, qu. in I. Prothero, ‘William Benbow and the concept of the “General Strike”’, Past and Present (May 1974), pp. 132–71, at p. 140; see also Poor Man's Guardian, 28 Jan. 1832, p. 264, qu. in Prothero, ‘William Benbow’, p. 143.

77 Paine, Rights of man, ed. Foner, p. 227.

78 Wade, Extraordinary black book.

79 The Agitator, Nov. 1833, p. 1.

80 See Thomas Wooler's Black dwarf (1817–24), discussed in Epstein, Radical expression, pp. 37–9, 57–65.

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84 Stedman Jones, Languages of class, p. 153.

85 The term ‘shopocracy’ denoted an aristocracy of shopkeepers who were opposed to Chartism and the retail co-ops.

86 Qu. in Stedman Jones, Languages of class, p. 104.

87 Philp, Mark, ‘Reaching for democracy in Britain, 1760–1830’, in Llenci, M. and Calabro, C., eds., Vlagio nella democrazia: il cammino dell'idea demmocratica nell storia del pensiero politico (Pisa, 2010)Google Scholar.

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93 Beckett, Aristocracy in England, p. 21.

94 Anon., The aristocracy and the people (Manchester, 1830), p. 8, qu. in Beckett, Aristocracy in England, p. 20.

95 Beckett, Aristocracy in England, p. 20.

96 See Corfield, ‘The rivals’, pp. 2–3, 10.

97 There is debate about this term. See, for example, Hobsbawm, E. J., Labouring men (London, 1964)Google Scholar; Foster, J., Class struggle and the industrial revolutions: early capitalism in three English towns (London, 1974)Google Scholar; Gray, R., The aristocracy of labour in nineteenth-century Britain, c. 1850–1914 (London, 1981)Google Scholar; Stedman Jones, Languages of class.

98 See, for example, Proceedings of the association for promoting the discovery of the interior parts of Africa (London, date unknown but the related meeting took place in 1805); ‘Chit-Chat’, The satirist and the censor of the time, 18 Jan. (London, 1835); ‘Fashions for May, 1812’, La belle assemblée; or, Bell's court and fashionable magazine (London, 1812); The court magazine and monthly critic, 18 Jan. (London, 1835).

99 McWilliam, Rohan, ‘Melodrama and the historians’, Radical History Review, 78 (2000), pp. 5784Google Scholar.

100 Ibid., p. 62.

101 Political Instructor, and Reynold's Miscellany (1845–69). In 1850, the Political Instructor became Reynold's Weekly News. See Humphreys, Anne, ‘G. W. M. Reynolds: popular literature & popular politics’, Victorian Periodicals Review, 3–4 (1983), pp. 7989, at p. 84Google Scholar; Haywood, Ian, ‘George W. M. Reynolds and the radicalisation of Victorian serial fiction’, Media History, 4 (1989), pp. 121–39Google Scholar.

102 D. J. Cohen, ‘Interchange, the promise of digital history’, www.journalof, p. 2; see also Greengrass, M. and Hughes, L., eds., The virtual representation of the past (Aldershot, 2008), p. 2Google Scholar.

103 Hitchcock, T., ‘Digital searching and re-formulation of historical knowledge’, in Greengrass, and Hughes, , eds., Virtual representation, pp. 8190’, at p. 89Google Scholar.

104 See Greengrass and Hughes, eds., Virtual representation; Withington, Society in early modern England, pp. 1–13.

105 Google Ngram and Bookworm only include books and similar printed material but not manuscripts.

106 For a recent case study see S. Tanner, T. Munoz, and P. H. Ros, ‘Measuring mass text digitization quality and usefulness: lessons learned from assessing the OCR accuracy of the British Library's 19th century online newspaper archive, D-Lib Magazine, 15 (2009), at july09/Munoz/ 07munoz.html. Due to the complexity and workload required to remedy this problem they recommend using the King's Digital Consultancy Services.

107 ECCO proved more unstable in this regard than other databases such as British newspapers.

108 Examples include zotero, TAPoR, Google Ngram, and the Firefox extension Scrutiny but more are emerging all the time. See also the database Connected histories: British history sources 1500–1900.

109 Google Ngram uses Google Books database with over 1,000,000 books published in English from 1500 to 2008. Bookworm is a collaborative project between the Harvard Cultural Observatory, the Open Library, and the Open Science Data Cloud. Bookworm uses texts in the public domain from the Open Library and Internet Archive. Bookworm enables graphical searches to explore textual trends across approximately 950,000 books from 1700. See and Google Ngram is case sensitive but Bookworm enables a non-case sensitive field, chosen for all Bookworm graphs here.

110 See Ngram and Bookworm Graphs 1.

111 Table 1.

112 Table 1.

113 Table 4. ‘Ariftocra*’ showed no hits on this database.

114 Table 1.

115 Table 1 and see also Ngram Graph 3.

116 See Tables 1 and 2, Ngram Graph 4 and Bookworm Graph 3. On ECCO, ‘Noblewoman’ appeared in writings on fashion, medical issues, the law, Scottish royalty, and others but none were political texts.

117 See Colley, Britons, pp. 244–50; Rogers, N., Crowds, culture and politics in Georgian Britain (Oxford, 1998)Google Scholar, ch. 7; Vernon, Politics and the people, ch. 6; Wilson, K., The sense of the people: politics, culture and imperialism in England, 1715–1785 (Cambridge, 1995)Google Scholar. For women in radicalism, see Bush, M. L., ‘The women at Peterloo: the impact of female reform on the Manchester meeting of 16 August 1819’, History, 294 (2004), pp. 209–32Google Scholar; Custer, P. A., ‘Refiguring Jemima: gender work and politics in Lancashire, 1770–1820’, Past and Present, 195 (2007), pp. 127–58Google Scholar.

118 Table 2.

119 Google Ngram and Bookworm Graphs 2. The growth of ‘aristocracy’ from the 1790s is more immediately marked on Bookworm.

120 Table 4.

121 Table 6 and Table 3. It should be noted though that these databases are not necessarily comparable in terms of content or quantity of material. Eighteenth Century Journals covers the period c. 1685–1815. Each recorded only one hit for ‘ariftocra*’.

122 Both Google Ngram and Bookworm warn users that searches in earlier centuries are less reliable since fewer texts are available.

123 See Tables 1 and 2.

124 Table 2.

125 See also Ngram Graphs 5 and 6 and Bookworm Graph 4.

126 See Epstein, Radical expression, ch. 1; Hall-Witt, ‘Reforming the aristocracy’, p. 236.

127 Hessayon and Finnegan, eds., Varieties of English radicalism, p. 3.

128 Some databases such as ECCO contain editions of texts printed outside Britain, primarily here America and Ireland. Dates run from 1 January to 31 December of all given years in all databases searched here. These datasets are generally not case sensitive.

129 Google labs Ngram viewer within which these graphs were created displays a graph showing the frequency of word occurrence over a specified time using the Google books database. See The y-axis shows what percentage of words contained in the Google books sample are those selected here, e.g. ‘aristocracy’. In making the searches ‘British English’ was used which includes ‘books predominantly in the English language and published in the United Kingdom’. Spikes in graphs are more likely to appear in material before 1800 since less material was published at that time and are not generally indicative of a significant increase, as they might suggest. A smoothing of 2 was used here. The 0 per cent flatline reflects data when less than forty books were found. See Jean-Baptiste Michel, Yuan Kui Shen, Aviva Presser Aiden, Adrian Veres, Matthew K. Gray, William Brockman, the Google Books Team, Joseph P. Pickett, Dale Hoiberg, Dan Clancy, Peter Norvig, Jon Orwant, Steven Pinker, Martin A. Nowak, and Erez Lieberman Aiden. ‘Quantitative analysis of culture using millions of digitized books’, Science (published online ahead of print 16 Dec. 2010).

130 Bookworm functions similarly to Ngram it but enables non-case sensitive searches and all searches for the graphs here were made non-case sensitive and in English with a smoothing of two years. Graphs created at