Jane Austen Title Drops

I read Persuasion recently (more on that in the March 2015 books round-up, presumably) and because of the title of the book, every instance of the word persuasion or variations thereof felt sort of jarring and like it should be imbued with a special significance, like “hey, see what I did there? That’s the title, bro.”1 And so, if you already conveniently happen to have lists of word frequencies for all of Austen’s works2, a sort of natural question arises: does Jane Austen actually use the word persuasion significantly more in Persuasion than she does in her other novels?

The short answer: nope.

The slightly longer answer:

We want to look at how often each “title word” appears in each Austen novel. As words, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, and Emma are probably only going to occur in their respective texts, so that’s not super interesting. But what about persuasionprideprejudice, etc.?

Note that the variations of each word included are:

  • persuasion (var.): persuadable, persuadableness, persuade, persuade, persuaded, persuading, persuasion, persuasions, persuasive, persuasively, unpersuadable
  • pride (var.): pride, prided, proud, proudest, proudly
  • prejudice (var.): prejudice, prejudiced, prejudices, unprejudiced
  • sense (var.): sensation, sensations, sense, senseless, senses, sensitive, nonsense, nonsenses, nonsensical
  • sensibility (var.): sensibilities, sensibility, sensible, sensibly, insensibility, insensible, insensibly

Since all of the novels are of different lengths (for example, Emma is more than twice as long as Northanger Abbey), we want to look at the frequency each word appears relative to the length of the text, rather than just the pure occurrences. The entries in this table are then the percentage of the total words in each text made up by the occurrences of each word (e.g., occurrences of the word persuasion account for 0.0068% of the total words in Emma).

Emma MP NA Per P&P S&S
persuasion 0.0068% 0.0012% 0.0077% 0.0071% 0.0065% 0.0108%
persuasion (var.) 0.0420% 0.0285% 0.0307% 0.0380% 0.0424% 0.0348%
pride 0.0111% 0.0068% 0.0179% 0.0202% 0.0383% 0.0066%
pride (var.) 0.0012% 0.0099% 0.0256% 0.0309% 0.0586% 0.0149%
prejudice 0.0012% 0.0025% 0.0000% 0.0024% 0.0041% 0.0017%
prejudice (var.) 0.0037% 0.0037% 0.0026% 0.0048% 0.0065% 0.0041%
sense 0.0346% 0.0260% 0.0231% 0.0202% 0.0293% 0.0257%
sense (var.) 0.0636% 0.0514% 0.0461% 0.0487% 0.0464% 0.0356%
sensibility 0.0037% 0.0025% 0.0038% 0.0048% 0.0016% 0.0075%
sensibility (var.) 0.0235% 0.0217% 0.0231% 0.0440% 0.0366% 0.0257%

So some of the Fun Facts that we can derive from this are:

  • persuasion appears with the greatest frequency in Sense and Sensibility
  • sense appears with the greatest frequency in Emma
  • pride and prejudice do in fact appear with the greatest frequencies in Pride and Prejudice

We could also use Google’s n-gram viewer look at the relative frequencies with which these words appeared in English fiction during Austen’s lifespan to get some sense of how her usage of the words compared to the general usage.

This almost definitely requires a deeper analysis3 to take it from the realm of semi-fun trivia to meaningful commentary on Jane Austen’s works, so like…semi-fun trivia, am I right?


1. Yes, this is definitely how Jane Austen spoke. ^
2. And honestly, who doesn’t? ^
3. In theory, as a statistics student, the author is capable of this, but in practice, as a lazy asshole, the author just isn’t feeling it. ^

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