Word Clouds as Discourse Analysis Tool

I just discovered Wordle, a free word-cloud generator. You paste any text you want into a box and the web site’s software generates a word-cloud.

For those of you unfamiliar with word-clouds, Wikipedia has this explanation:

In the language of visual design, a tag cloud (or word cloud) is one kind of “weighted list”, as commonly used on geographic maps to represent the relative size of cities in terms of relative typeface size.

[See Wikipedia's Tag Cloud entry for more.]

I’m fascinated by the possibilities of this tool to help us understand public discourse. Do the words we associate with a moment of public speech–such as Bill Clinton’s apology address after the Lewinsky scandal–match up with the words the speaker actually used? Here’s the Clinton speech in word-cloud form:

Can you find the word “sex”? The dominant word of the speech, it seems, was “private.” After that, “questions” and “investigation.” If “Questions” is the second most important term in the speech, can you find the word “answer”? (Hint, look to the far, far right.)

This word cloud reveals that the ideas that we associate with Clinton’s speech–admitting to a sexual affair with an intern–actually were not the words he used when talking about–or rather, around–that affair.

Here’s the Gettysburg Address:

(Wordle allows you to change the font, the background the colors, etc.)

Can you find the word “war”? It’s kind of medium-to-small, near the middle. Mostly what we see is “nation,” “dedicated” (along with dedicate) and “great poeple.” I love this one. I love the two meanings of dedicated and dedicate set side by side–to be persistent and to consecrate the hallowed ground of the battlefield. I love the image of the dead holding up the word “nation.”

I’m going to go try this with Marbury v. Madison.

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