As an author, how do you communicate the size of an object? You probably compare it to some other thing the reader is likely to be familiar with. Take these descriptions of objects from Charles Dickens:

a cauliflower somewhat larger than a chaise-umbrella

a bit about the size of a walnut put upon the plate

a bouquet, the size of a prize cauliflower in his buttonhole

his potter’s wheel - a disc about the size of a dinner-plate

a massive cameo, in size and shape like the raspberry tart which is ordinarily sold for a penny

The objects that people formed comparisons with during a given time period provide an interesting window into what everyday objects they had on their minds, and what they treated as common knowledge. “the raspberry tart which is ordinarily sold for a penny” would be a pretty unhelpful reference for a modern reader, just as comparisons to credit cards or phone booths would be useless to a reader from 1844.

I used Google Books’ Ngram dataset to find the most popular size analogies in English books, and how they’ve changed from 1800 to today. In this post, I’ll explore a few interesting examples of analogies that have gone in or out of fashion, and what kinds of cultural, historical, or linguistic changes they might reveal.

So what do authors most frequently reach for when describing the size of things? Here are the overall top 20, ranked by total number of occurences in books between 1800 and 2008.

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(As noted in the heading, I restricted my analysis to comparisons taking the form "the size of a _____". For all the gory technical details, check out the appendix at the end.)

Peas seem to be the undisputed champion of size analogies.

Because the number of books published per year has increased over time, this ranking will tend to favour terms that have been popular in recent years. So for the rest of this post, I’ll be normalizing by the amount of text scanned in each year.

Let’s look at the top terms for the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries to get a sense of what’s changed over time.

1800s 1900s 2000s
1 pea pea pea
2 walnut walnut walnut
3 pinhead pinhead quarter
4 egg egg football field
5 hen's egg orange egg
6 orange hen's egg grapefruit
7 hazelnut hazelnut house
8 pigeon's egg man golf ball
9 shilling fist man
10 nut bean fist
11 cherry dime pinhead
12 bean apple dime
13 apple cherry orange
14 sixpence pigeon's egg baseball
15 pigeon quarter postage stamp
16 goose silver dollar basketball
17 man marble football
18 nutmeg house deck of cards
19 pin pin tennis ball
20 millet seed lead pencil silver dollar
21 cat nut pencil
22 crown piece shilling credit card

(Terms are coloured according to the subset of centuries in which they chart.)

“the size of a pea” is consistently the number 1 size comparison from 1800 to present day. Eggs and walnuts also remain consistently popular, but beyond those examples, there’s a lot of change from century to century.

Some differences have obvious historical reasons. For example, the shilling was out of circulation by the dawn of the millenium, and credit cards didn’t exist in the 19th century. But most are less obvious. Why have we gradually forgetten how big pigeon eggs are? Why is a deck of cards such a distinctly modern point of reference?

Let’s dig into some trends and a few specific curiosities.

Down with nature

One general trend that stands out is a drop over time in references to ‘natural’ objects.

1800s 1900s 2000s
1 pea pea pea
2 walnut walnut walnut
3 pinhead pinhead quarter
4 egg egg football field
5 hen's egg orange egg
6 orange hen's egg grapefruit
7 hazelnut hazelnut house
8 pigeon's egg man golf ball
9 shilling fist man
10 nut bean fist
11 cherry dime pinhead
12 bean apple dime
13 apple cherry orange
14 sixpence pigeon's egg baseball
15 pigeon quarter postage stamp
16 goose silver dollar basketball
17 man marble football
18 nutmeg house deck of cards
19 pin pin tennis ball
20 millet seed lead pencil silver dollar
21 cat nut pencil
22 crown piece shilling credit card

16 of the top 22 terms in the 19th century refer to objects from nature (seeds, fruits, animals, nuts, eggs…), but by the 21st century there are only 5.

Up with sports

Not a single sports analogy makes the list in the 19th and 20th centuries, but they explode onto the scene in the 21st century:

1800s 1900s 2000s
1 pea pea pea
2 walnut walnut walnut
3 pinhead pinhead quarter
4 egg egg football field
5 hen's egg orange egg
6 orange hen's egg grapefruit
7 hazelnut hazelnut house
8 pigeon's egg man golf ball
9 shilling fist man
10 nut bean fist
11 cherry dime pinhead
12 bean apple dime
13 apple cherry orange
14 sixpence pigeon's egg baseball
15 pigeon quarter postage stamp
16 goose silver dollar basketball
17 man marble football
18 nutmeg house deck of cards
19 pin pin tennis ball
20 millet seed lead pencil silver dollar
21 cat nut pencil
22 crown piece shilling credit card

Most of the referenced sports weren’t invented until around the turn of the century, so it isn’t surprising they didn’t make the pre-1900 list. But it’s not like they didn’t have any sports in the 19th century. Why weren’t analogies to golf balls or cricket balls popular back then?

This provides circumstantial evidence that people in the English-speaking world are at least thinking about sports a lot more than they did 1 or 2 generations ago. If that’s true, is it being driven by increases in leisure time allowing more people to play? Or advances in mass media that have made it easier to watch professional sports? That sounds like a question for a sociologist.

The decline of pigeon eggs

Pigeon eggs were an astonishingly common benchmark for comparisons in the 19th century, ranking 8th (with “size of a pigeon” at number 15). But they experienced a sharp drop in the late 19th century and a gradual decline thereafter.

Why was everyone familiar with the size of pigeon eggs in the 1800s? I’ve lived in cities with lots of pigeons and never seen one of their eggs.

If you’re skeptical, you can browse some examples from Google Books here. It’s not that this time period has an extraordinary number of books on ornithology. The comparison occurs frequently in technical texts on areas like medicine, botany and geology. But it also occurs in books aimed at non-technical audiences (e.g. a Jules Verne novel, or The Practice of Cookery: Adapted to the Business of Every Day Life by one “Mrs. Dalgairns”).

This was hugely baffling to me, until I remembered that other pigeon.

Passenger pigeons were once the most abundant bird in North America - flocks (like the one illustrated above) were described as blocking out the sun. The wiki article is full of vivid descriptions of their abundance and the extravagance with which they were hunted:

Passenger pigeons were shot with such ease that many did not consider them to be a game bird, as an amateur hunter could easily bring down six with one shotgun blast; a particularly good shot with both barrels of a shotgun at a roost could kill 61 birds.

The pigeon was considered so numerous that 30,000 birds had to be killed to claim the prize in one competition.

And this particularly relevant one regarding nesting sites:

Nearly every tree capable of supporting nests had them, often more than 50 per tree; one hemlock was recorded as holding 317 nests.

Of course, their story doesn’t have a happy ending. As a result of overhunting and deforestation, by the 1870’s their numbers had noticeably declined, and they were virtually extinct in the wild by the 1890’s. Concurrently, “size of a pigeon’s egg” analogies began their own slow march toward extinction.

The size of a nutmeg?

This one is pretty baffling.

This is consistent with the general observation that terms from nature have declined over time. We generally spend less time making food than our ancestors did, so nuts and spices are less likely to be at the forefront of our minds than golf balls and quarters. But this dramatic, steep decline isn’t experienced by walnuts or hazelnuts or even the relatively obscure millet seed.

Another curious aspect here is that nutmeg is treated as a count noun (“a nutmeg”) rather than a mass noun (“some nutmeg”, “a teaspoon of nutmeg”). To my ear, this sounds utterly bizarre, though it seems like it’s not entirely archaic. The Corpus of Contemporary American English turns up 8 hits each for “a nutmeg” and “nutmegs” (vs. 1700 for “nutmeg”). For example, this passage from a 2012 Washington Post article:

Important additions: a squeeze of lemon juice and two — no more — Microplaned swipes of a nutmeg. Those go into every fruit pie, she says.

Or this exchange from a 2001 episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show (condensed to remove some crosstalk):

WINFREY: OK. What are you doing? Ms-KOSTYRA: I’m grating a nutmeg. The two most popular flavorings for apple pie are cinnamon, nutmeg. WINFREY: And you can grate it. I thought you bought it in a little jar that – that you – that… Ms-KOSTYRA: Well, it’s fresh.

WINFREY: You can buy fresh nutmeg?