Wednesday 24 July 2013

Fall in intelligence, rise in ability


The recent heat wave in London is probably responsible for a certain lassitude of the intellect, but it has led me into idle speculation: what popular words are used to denote cleverness? The absolute frequency, and the historical trend from 1800 might prove informative.

First, we can get rid of the abbreviation IQ. It does not show up at all until the early 1920s and by 1930 almost disappears again, only to make a very slow return which peaks in the mid 1970s and then subsides somewhat. It is rare, so forget about it.

Smart is somewhat more frequent, and stays remarkably stable, rising somewhat in the last decade. Still pretty rare.

Clever rose from nowhere to a respectable peak in 1900 and then declined to the end of the millennium, with a little bit of a revival since. Still pretty rare.

Intelligent was more frequent, but has been in relative decline since the 1930s, ending up no more popular that the rare words we have already discarded above.

Bright boomed in the 1870s, and then declined, but still has respectable usage.

One word has flourished, surpassing all others by 1930 and zooming upwards ever since.


Thus, we can see that there has been a drop in smartness, cleverness, and intelligence. There has been tolerance of brightness. There has been warm acceptance of ability.

What’s your ability quotient?




This note was posted on a hot and humid evening. Slightly different variants of the keyword might have give different results. No animals were harmed in the conduct of this experiment.


  1. Dawkins, Dennett & Co tried to co-opt "bright" for the "atheist community". It didn't work. It's a shame that smugness and inability to understand the world aren't easily measurable, because those two are clearly world-beaters. Here's Denn on the topic:

    There was also a negative response, largely objecting to the term that had been chosen [not by me]: bright, which seemed to imply that others were dim or stupid. But the term, modeled on the highly successful hijacking of the ordinary word "gay" by homosexuals, does not have to have that implication. Those who are not gays are not necessarily glum; they're straight. Those who are not brights are not necessarily dim.

  2. Deliberately co-opting words generally fails. "Bright" correctly transmits the implication that others are less bright, if not thoroughly dim. It is the wish to avoid the implication that there are important individual differences in intellect which leads to circumlocution and euphemism.

  3. When I was a wee boy my parents' word of praise was "clever" so I was forever being told that I had been a clever boy. Only later did I learn that many families preferred "oh what a good boy". Maybe that's Scotland vs England? Anyway, I'm suggesting a nice little research topic for a final year undergraduate - look into words of praise.