Quicksand

Radiolab recently had an interesting interview with Daniel Engber. In it, Engber discusses the rise and fall of quicksand as a device in movies. (You can also read his Slate article on the same subject). His data shows a clear peak in the percentage of movies using quicksand in the 1960s (chart via Radiolab):

quicksand_movies_graph_620

Engber suggests that the decline in quicksand in movies coincides with a decline in children’s fear of it. It has lost its allure as an image of terror. I was curious, then, if a similar pattern is evident in language. COCA shows the following distribution for quicksand over time:

quicksand_coha

The data seem to show an earlier peak (in the 1900s and 1910s), followed by a dip then a steady decline after 1940. One potentially complicating factor, here, is that quicksand is a relatively rare word, which could affect some of the fluctuations. So I thought this would be a good opportunity to try out BYU’s version of Google Book’s data, which Mark Davies discussed at this year’s Studies in the History of the English Language conference. The results are similar, but with a more clearly defined rise and fall:

quicksand_google

As with the COCA distribution, the Google data suggest a peak in language use that precedes the peak in movies. The data also show a move toward metaphorization in recent decades. Early in the twentieth century, examples are typically like this one:

There was a ford directly opposite the cantonment, and another, more dangerous, and known to only a few, three miles farther up stream. Keeping well within the water’s edge, so as to thus completely obscure their trail, yet not daring to venture deep for fear of striking quicksand, the plainsman sent his pony struggling forward, until the dim outline of the bank at his right rendered him confident that they had attained the proper point for crossing.

Later, however, we find examples like this one:

Only their husbands believed the kids were their own. He missed his mother, too, whose quicksand love he’d wanted so badly to escape.

Or this one:

It may well be that in responding to recent Congressional language the N.E.A. has begun to have a chilling effect on art in the United States and it may be entering the quicksand of censorship.

Not that quicksand  as a physical entity disappears completely in more recent discourse:

Georgie was not popular in the swamp; in fact, the other members of the colony that inhabited this stretch of muck and quicksand, black water and scum, had banished him to the very fringe of the community.

While such examples exist, they are far fewer than the type in which some physical sensation is compared to moving through quicksand or something (like love or censorship) is compared to the ensnaring effects of quicksand, itself. Thus, the use of quicksand is not only declining, it is also undergoing a shift in meaning.

Which brings us back to our  earlier question: Why does quicksand peak earlier in language than in film? One possibility might be related to the relative durability of particular genres in different media. Adventure stories (like dime novels) had their greatest popularity in the early twentieth century. This genre appears to be an enthusiastic employer of quicksand as a conventional obstacle and threat, and the decline of the genre coincides with the decline of the word. How the rise of quicksand as a cinematic device relates to the rise of particular kinds of movies, I’m not sure, but the relationships among Engber’s data and the linguistic data pose some compelling questions.

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