Post-107: More on the Origin of “Philistine”

In Post-106, I wrote about the amazing etymology of the word “philistine” (=uncultured). The word’s origin is amazing to me, anyway.    [Post-106 was updated on July 22nd with my discovery of Matthew Arnold’s first mention of the term. The experts say Arnold popularized the word in English].

“Philistine” was German student slang of the 1700s. It was used by Goethe in the modern-English sense in the late 1700s. It didn’t enter English until Matthew Arnold popularized it in the 1860s.

Here are the occurrences of the word, from 1800-to-Present in the corpus of Google-Books. First, “British English” (books published in Britain) and next “American English” (books published in the USA).


Frequency of the word “philistine” (including its plural) in BRITISH ENGLISH, 1800 to 1990 [Source]


Frequency of the word “philistine” (including its plural) in AMERICAN ENGLISH, 1800 to 1990 [Source]

(1) These graphs are not the same scale. I don’t think there is a way to manipulate that.
(2) The smoothing is 3 [base-year + three years before and after, i.e. “1880” in the above is actually 1887-1893, averaged).
(3) Google-ngram is capitalization-sensitive. The word “philistine” yields totally different results from “Philistine”. Bibles or other references to the Biblical ethnic group would all be capitalized. Uncapitalized uses, then, mean “uncultured”. However, some early uses may actually have been capitalized, before it became fully-entered English as a lowercase derogatory term for an uncultured person.

Is “Philistine” a British or an American Word?
The term was popularized in English via the efforts of Matthew Arnold, so its origin in English is British. It became more American over time, then went back to being British by the WWII era. I have always seen it as a more British word. Here are the ratios, decade-by-decade:

Frequency of “philistine(s)” in British vs. American English [Google-Books]
1880: British, 2-to-1
1890: Parity, British edge
1900: Parity, American edge
1910: Parity, American edge
1915: American, 2-to-1
1920: Parity, American edge
1930: Parity, American edge
1940: British, 3-to-2
1950: British, 2-to-1
1960: British, 3-to-2
1970: British, 3-to-2
1980: British, 2-to-1

The word “philistine” had a huge jump in popularity in the USA in the year 1916, Google-Ngram shows. It went from .00002% (combined singular/plural) words printed in the USA in 1915 to .000106%, then back down to .000027% in 1917 (you can set smoothing to “0” to see this). This is a jump of 5x in one year. It must have to do with WWI. People were writing about WWI and the USA’s possible involvement in it. Some may have alluded to the Philistines of the Bible, who were sometimes at war with the Israelites (e.g., Goliath was a Philistine). Some of the Biblical uses (capitalized) of the word may have been read as lower-case by Google’s imperfect scanning software. Google’s Ngram software is not perfect. A similar bump happened in WWII in Britain, perhaps for the same reason.

Maybe the better word to look at is “Philistinism“, to get around that problem. Here are the graphs:


Frequency of the term “Philistinism” in BRITISH ENGLISH. [From here]


Frequency of the term “Philistinism” in AMERICAN ENGLISH. [From here].

Both terms clearly emerged in the 1860s, after Matthew Arnold’s essay (if setting “smoothing” to zero, all years before 1863 actually get zero values). By the 1880s, American-English used the term “philistinism” more frequently than British-English, and the two languages used “philistinism” about equally for a long time. Americans started giving up on the term in the 1970s/1980s, but it actually increased in popularity in Britain then.

In post-106, I wrote:

A long-forgotten, unknown pastor in a town in late-17th-century Germany ended up (in effect) “coining a word” that emerged in English two centuries later

That pastor is the true originator of the word (again, unintentionally), but if anyone deserves credit for its use in English, it’s Matthew Arnold.