‘Ought’ vs. ‘Need’: “Mad Men” and Cultural Shifts Represented by Changing Language

How much has language usage in America changed since, say, the 1960s? Sure, there’s the inclusion of various colloquial terms, a relaxing of grammer, and everyone’s least favorite lexical evolution, textspeak, but what about the more fundamental word usage? An Atlantic article on the historical inaccuracies of word usage in the television show Mad Men, set in the ’60s, piqued my interest by describing a fairly dramatic shift from the occurrence in media (TV, movies, books) of the phrase “I need to” over the phrase “I ought to,” which reigned supreme before the cultural revolutions of the ’60s.

From the article:

Using digitized books, movie subtitles, and tools like the Google Ngram viewer (which was first developed in 2010 by the Harvard Cultural Observatory, where I have a fellowship this year), it’s possible to write a computer program that looks at every single phrase to see if it really appeared in print in the 1960s. Doing so creates, essentially, an anachronism machine that ruthlessly seeks out and tags every potentially inaccurate line (of a certain length) in the script.

The writer analyzed the use of the phrase “ought to” versus “need to” in popular movies and television shows in the 1960s and today (Mad Men included). Google Ngrams also allows us to look at the “ought” vs. “need” patterns in books. Whereas now “ought to” is very rarely used, it turns out “need to” was seldom used in the ’60s. Using the Google data from analysis of words in books, it was only around 1963 that “need to” overtook “ought to,” which began the precipitous ascent of the former, and around 1986 that “I need to” overtook “I ought to” in books, as you can see in the clickable graphs below.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 12.54.19 PM Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 12.53.43 PM

This semantic shift could be indicative of a wider cultural shift in the time period since the post-World War II focus on conformity and serving a cause of sorts. “Ought” can be taken in a stronger vain as “should,” which speaks of one aiming to please a force external to oneself, reaching beyond personal needs to serve a higher purpose or social pressure. “Need” on the other hand stems from the self-agency of the individual, meeting their own needs.

From a values perspective, the cultural changes in post-WWII America recognized a variety of forces that influence one’s life — political, social, religious, familial — and the fusion of countercultural perspective and the existing American individualism, guided along by a consumption-based capitalism, the development of which is predicated on increased material goods consumption. This may be a stretch — perhaps “ought” just coincidentally fell out of fashion at the time of the ’60s cultural shift — but it seems like such evolving word usage is indicative of the changing values of a society, which strikes at the core of the difficulty of capturing prior eras of speech. Maybe the writers of Mad Men should run a Google Ngrams analysis next time…

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