a snow shoveler

Snow Shoveler

After a recent snowstorm, the Boston Globe published an op-ed piece by Scot Lehigh (http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2011/01/21/dont_kids_shovel_anymore/) in which, expanding on Medieval poet and thief François Villon’s query concerning the whereabouts of the snows of times past, he asked, “Where are the snow shovelers of yesteryear?” Specifically, “Where are the entrepreneurial kids who used to offer to shovel your sidewalk after a storm (having previously discharged their duties to their morning paper route clientele)?” Ô les beaux jours! While the Globe subsequently printed a couple of high-dudgeon letters to the editor attesting to the quick-and-wellness of at least two self-described pliers of the trade, the original article caused me to wonder how one might determine at what point a given occupation (such as snow shoveler, tinker, or reeve) has become obsolescent or, ultimately, obsolete, its last practitioners gone to that great unemployment office in the sky?


Look in the Yellow Pages to see if the jobs have listings? For those increasing numbers of the telephoning populace who have given up their land lines and routinely recycle their complementary phone books, this would likely mean a trip to the library. Fortunately, Google has recently given the public a nifty application (http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/) that lets you graph the frequency of occurrence over time of words and short phrases (e.g., those for occupations) as they have appeared in an enormous corpus of printed documents.  To be sure, a word or phrase may persist in print long after its referent has for all practical purposes ceased to exist (or, in some cases, like tinker, has metamorphosed), so the fact that, say, snow shoveler may still be found in print doesn’t mean that there are any actual snow shovelers left (letters to the Globe not withstanding). However, you can make certain inferences from the trajectory of the frequency of  a word’s or phrase’s appearance in the corpus.


So, what can Google’s Ngrams application tell us about the prevalence of snow shovelers? Consider Exhibit A, a comparison of the frequencies of occurrence of the terms snow shoveler and, with our own a nod to M Villon, poet and thief:

Ngrams graph

Poets, Thieves, and Snow Shovelers 1600-2000

By and large, poets seem to have gotten better—or at least much more—press than thieves in comparison to both of whom snow shovelers barely make the charts and at that not until the 1800s. (The date range under Search in Google Books is a tip-off here to which I’ll return presently). Here’s the Ngram graph for snow shoveler by itself:

Ngrams graph 2

snow shoveler

Perhaps it would be fairer to start in 1800 and pick some more appropriate competition, say, dish washer and chimney sweep:

Ngrams graph 3

Snow Shovelers, Dish Washers, and Chimney Sweeps 1800 - 2000

Better. Now, about the links under Search in Google Books: Each of these takes you to a list of sources from which the data represented in the graph were drawn that you can look at on line. For example, when you click on the leftmost (earliest) time span under snow shoveler, the first hit is a page in Bankroft’s First[-fifth] Reader of 1883:

Ngram hit

Early Snow Shoveler

Page 136 (and the following) offer a picture of a lad shoveling snow followed by a poem entitled “The Little Snow-Shoveler,” which begins

“Merrily whistling along the street,

With his little nose, his hands and feet

Sharply bitten by old Jack Frost,

His curly hair by the rude wind tossed,

Armed with his shovel, goes Ned Magee;

In search of some work, of course, is he.”

 Not, perhaps, quite in the same league as Villon’s “Testament et Rondeau” (though the enjambment between lines 2 and 3 is nice). But it is snowing again and Ned Magee’s avatar is nowhere to be seen, so I must leave you with Ngram while I go out to clear the sidewalk and the driveway.

Ngram graph 4

Sidewalk and Driveway