Words are powerful. A well chosen word can serve to make an entire line of reasoning clear to someone that you’re communicating with. They can also be incredibly evocative. A single word can connect the listener with long forgotten memories or tap into deep emotions.
As I listened to Barack Obama’s inauguration speech, I found myself really focusing on the individual words, more than the actual message. This was no ordinary everyday speech, but an inaugural address—the vehicle that a new president uses to project his most central beliefs and values. So the speech was filled with very powerful words like: Nation. People. Generation. Work. Hope.
It occurred to me that maybe I’d be hearing the same words, even had the other candidate won. The message may well be quite different, but I started thinking that I’d hear many of the same powerful words being used.
I decided to do a little experiment and actually analyze which words President Obama was using in his speech. There are web pages out there that could do this for me, not only making a list of which words were present in the speech, but keeping track of which words appeared most frequently.
What I created for the speech is known as a “tag cloud”. You often see them along the side of a blog, depicting the most common topics that the author has blogged about. The distinctive thing about tag clouds is that the size of the words in the “cloud” is proportional to how many posts are about that topic. Below is an example—a fragment of the tag cloud from my blog post.
You can do a similar sort of thing with any arbitrary chunk of text. Run it through a piece of software that analyzes the individual words and then generates a tag cloud, with the words used most often showing up the largest.
I couldn’t wait to try this on Obama’s speech. I quickly found the TagCrowd web site, which lets you input any arbitrary text and generates a tag cloud for you. Here’s a fragment of the cloud that I got for Obama’s inaugural speech:
This was incredibly cool. You can see that the tag cloud is way of depicting the speech visually, with the most used words the most noticeable, because of their size. This illustrates the particular power of these words in a very compelling way.
I immediately started wondering what some of the other inaugural addresses would look like, when depicted this way. So I plugged in President Bush’s 2nd inaugural address, from Jan, 2005. Here’s a chunk of that tag cloud:
This was also sort of amazing. Some of the same words showed up again—common themes between both men. But there are also some big differences, based on which words are central to the message being delivered. Somehow, it seemed like just looking at the tag cloud was imparting a true sense of each man and the message being delivered.
I can never really do things in half measures, so I decided to put together a web page that included tag clouds for every single inaugural address—from Washington to Obama. I also included links back to the full text of each inaugural address.
You can see the end result at: http://www.seans.com/tags
You’ll see that I also added one more very interesting piece of information. On the main page, where I list each president and their inaugural address(es), I also list the three most common words from that particular address.
This makes for some very interesting reading, just reading the list of presidents, without going to the tag clouds. Somehow, even with just three words, you can get a sense of the man and the times during which he was speaking.
Here are a few examples:
- Thomas Jefferson: government, fellow-citizens, man
- Abraham Lincoln: constitution, states, people
- Franklin D. Roosevelt: national, people, helped
- John F. Kennedy: sides, world, pledge
In the end, this was a fascinating exercise. It really highlights the raw power of the words being used in these speeches. Even when we break the speech up into words, the individual words still have great power, as the core concepts and beliefs jump out at us.