Why Language Goes Viral: What 200 Years and 5 Million Books Tell Us


In the internet age, there’s so much talk of “going viral,” but things have been “going viral” for a long time. For example, baby names that were once uncommon suddenly become popular, rumors catch on and spread quickly, and certain brands and products become the new hot thing.

Even words and phrases can go viral, spreading quickly and finding their way into common vocabulary. 1961 saw the release of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which sparked outrage over its inclusion of words like “ain’t” and “litterbug.” [1]Read this great New York Times piece for the full story..

Recently, Merriam-Webster added terms like “WTF,” “emoji” and “clickbait” to its list of entries. (By the way, click here for 7 other mind-blowing entries like “clickbait” that will OUTRAGE you–I coudn’t believe number 4!)

But what causes new expressions to take off? Why do some phrases so perfectly capture an idea and become widely adopted, leaving other phrases that express the same idea to dwindle in the untouched pages of time?

At least one answer to this questions comes from research on the social psychology of language, especially on the use of sensory metaphors. These are metaphors that use physical sensations to capture the essence of an idea. If I say, “it was a heated debate,” “the movie ended on a sour note,” or “the test was a hard one”[2]To which my 8th grade science teacher would inevitably respond, “No, it was paper soft!” It was always a good point that we were happy to hear., that’s a case of sensory metaphor.

In fact, new neuroscience research has shown that when people read sensory metaphors, it activates the same parts of their brain that are involved in the physical sensation itself. So when I hear you refer to your career as “a bumpy road,” my brain processes that using the channels that are active when I’m actually feeling something that’s actually bumpy.

So if sensory metaphors are so compelling, are they actually more likely to become popular?

Turning to Google Books for Answers

To test whether sensory metaphors really do spread more quickly than non-sensory metaphors that express the same idea, Ezgi Akpinar and Jonah Berger analyzed the usage of these metaphors in over 5 million books from the last 200 years (that’s over 361 billion English words). Although you might be tempted to picture two tireless researchers pouring over every word in a national library, they actually used data from Google Books.

bookThey made a list of 32 sensory metaphors following a careful pre-determined scheme that I won’t go into here (check out the original article for details). Alongside each metaphor, they recorded three other expressions that say the same thing without invoking sensory associations.

For example, they tracked the usage of the expression “bright student,” and compared it to the usage of the expressions “clever student,” “intelligent student,” “and “smart student.” They also tracked the usage of the expression “warm smile” compared to the usage of “friendly smile,” “kind smile,” and “welcoming smile.” You get the idea.

The question was: how frequently were these phrases used every year from 1800 to 2000, and how quickly did the phrases rise to popular usage?

Although the usage of both types of expressions increased over time, use of the sensory metaphors increased more sharply[3]Notice I said “sharply” rather than “suddenly.” The sensory version is just so much more compelling! than the non-sensory metaphors. For a number of years, usage of those 32 sensory metaphors were indeed more popular overall than the non-sensory versions, but starting at around 1940, usage of those sensory metaphors took off, becoming more and more popular year after year.

What’s So Special About Sensory Metaphors in the Social Psychology of Language?

The researchers propose that sensory language benefits from being better remembered than non-sensory language. Think about it: it’s easier to get wrapped up in a memory of your favorite concert than to remember the first ten elements in the periodic table. In the former, the feelings surrounding that experience are ready to go, but the concept of “Boron”[4]which, inexplicably, is my favorite element. isn’t in your mind, jumping at the chance to leap into consciousness.

So when you’re trying to express an idea, the first expression to come to mind is the one that’s tied to a sensation. If you want to say how considerate your grandmother was, the feeling of “sweet” comes to mind because it’s a sensation linked directly to the idea. The word “considerate,” though is only a word and isn’t as directly linked to the idea.

Akpinar and Berger tested this in a follow-up study. When they used the same list of 32 sensory expressions and their non-sensory counterparts in a memory exercise, people had better memory for the sensory expressions they read than for the non-sensory expressions.


As the researchers themselves so succinctly conclude: “[s]ensory metaphors are more successful over time and are more likely to be retrieved because they are more sensory in nature.

These results provide compelling new research on two fronts. First, they give us insight into real-world language use and how simple ideas become massively popular. Second, they reveal more about the power of metaphors. For more on metaphor, check out one of the studies I cover in Social Psych Online’s free eBook, “5 Amazing Psychology Experiments.” Metaphors turn out to be an important part of how we think and how our minds connect the physical and emotional.


This post is part of New Research Friday: Each Friday, we aim to bring new research in social psychology to the blog, highlighting information revealed in studies that have only recently been published.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Read this great New York Times piece for the full story.
2. To which my 8th grade science teacher would inevitably respond, “No, it was paper soft!” It was always a good point that we were happy to hear.
3. Notice I said “sharply” rather than “suddenly.” The sensory version is just so much more compelling!
4. which, inexplicably, is my favorite element.

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