Word sleuth

Wednesday, October 11, 2006 at 10:57 PM

As faithful readers of this blog know, we’re always on the lookout for interesting uses of Google Book Search, so I was excited to see this article by Jan Freeman of the Boston Globe.

Like William Safire, Freeman writes about language, investigating the history and meaning of words and phrases. In this piece, she uses Book Search to find out whether the tender phrase Tom Cruise utters to a teary-eyed Renée Zellweger in Jerry Maguire -- "You complete me" -- would be anachronistic in a novel set in the 1950s, as a book reviewer claimed.

Writes Freeman (hyperlinks, mine):

[Well], maybe it wasn't a plausible wedding toast for that fictional '50s couple, but the wording wasn't exactly fresh when the Jerry Maguire screenwriter used it. Thanks to Google Book Search, there are examples at our fingertips:

"I hope, for my part, never to be unworthy of him, and we shall be able to complete each other mutually." -- Mme. de Stael's daughter Albertine, writing of her husband-to-be in an 1816 letter.

"Sir Willoughby is a splendid creature, only wanting a wife to complete him." -- George Meredith, in his hilarious (and underappreciated) 1879 novel The Egoist.

. . .And of course Plato had something to say -- long ago, and in another country -- about humans being pathetic halves of their former perfect selves, longing for their missing complements.

Go ahead, give it a try -- plug in a few "modern" words and phrases (like "dude" or "keep it real"). You might be surprised at where -- and when -- they show up.


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