In 2010, Google released its “Ngram Viewer” which allows people to search through many of the millions of books that it has scanned and to chart word usage over time.
Doing so is a great way to waste time, and that’s what I’ve been doing with certain terms and names from modern Southeast Asian history.
Looking at “Siam” and “Annam” in English, predictably we find that Siam gets mentioned much more, probably because “Annam” was under French colonial control for a good part of the period represented here.
However, when we do a search of French language books for the same two terms, we end up with different results.
Searching for the words “Thailand” and “Vietnam” we can see what we would expect. Siam officially became “Thailand” in 1939, and the term “Vietnam” only started to be used widely after WW II, and that is what we see here (with what was likely a lag of a few years in the use of the term “Vietnam” in English writings behind the usage among Vietnamese).
Searching for “Sarawak” and “Borneo” we find a Similar pattern in the frequency of word use. My guess here would be that this is because for most writers in English, Sarawak “was” Borneo to them (as that was the main place they visited), and the two terms were probably frequently mentioned together.
A search of the names of some twentieth-century political figures leads to some interesting results. I didn’t expect to see Sukarno’s name gaining as much mention as it must have in the 1960s. That said, his overthrow was of course an extremely significant event.
Finally, looking up “Singapore,” “Raffles” and “Lee Kuan Yew” leads to an interesting result.
The Senior Minister has never been as talked about as much as the Lion City’s founder, but he has come admirably close at times.
So give Google’s Ngram Viewer a try. It’s a great way to waste time. . .