Willa Cather Was Skeptical of Analytics Before You Were

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April 9 2014 5:08 PM

Willa Cather Was Skeptical of Analytics Before You Were

O Necklace!

Until a decade or two ago, the word analytics was limited, for me anyway, to exactly one context: the title of Aristotle's Prior Analytics.

Nowadays, analytics seems to be everywhere. Google Analytics "shows you the full customer picture across ads and videos, websites and social tools, tablets and smartphones." Harvard Business Review is prepared to tell you "Why Your Analytics Are Failing You," without any concern that you might not know what your analytics are. The University of Maryland just got a Gates Foundation grant "to better gather and use learning analytics." And so on, though tens of thousands of web sites, news articles, book chapters, and scholarly articles.


This is all consistent with the meaning that the Wikipedia entry suggests should be associated with Aristotle's use of analytics, namely "finding the reasoned facts." And it fits exactly sense 1.b. of the Oxford English Dictionary's (revised in 2010) entry:

1.a.  Chiefly Philos. The science or method of using analysis to examine something complex; spec. the branch of logic that deals with analysis, esp. with reference to the book of the same name by Aristotle.
1.b. The collation and analysis of data or statistics, esp. by computer, typically for financial or commercial purposes; the data that results from this; (also) software used for this purpose.

The OED's citations for sense 1.b. go back to 1966 (though I don't think that I encountered this usage until the late 1990s):

1966   Econ. & Polit. Weekly 15 Oct. 377/1 A correct conclusion from the analytics of comparative statics.
1980   Amer. Banker (Nexis) 25 July, Understanding the analytics, setting servicing standards, and selling the system to branch operating folks.
2001   Financial Times 27 Jan. 9/7 (advt.) All the features active traders need, including news, charts, analytics and direct trading capabilities.
2009   A. Kaushik Web Analytics 2·0 xiii. 394 In the last few years I have implemented at least 25 analytics tools on my blog.

Looking for older uses in Google Books, I discovered something fascinating: Analytics of Literature: A Manual for the Objective Study of English Prose and Poetry, written by Lucius Adelno Sherman and published in 1893.

The novelist Willa Cather apparently studied with Sherman in 1892 or 1893 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and later took issue with his Analytics of Literature, which the late UNL professor Bernice Slote wrote about in the introduction to her book, The Kingdom of Art: Willa Cather's First Principles and Critical Statements, 1893-1896  (pp. 18-19):

[C]hiefly she opposed his efforts to make the study of literature and language scientific, a purpose he stated and defended in his Analytics of Literature (1893). Sherman was not all bad, even for Willa; in the Analytics are many insights that obviously influenced her. But some attitudes seemed to her both ignorant and ruthless. Often his scientific method came down to mere word-counting: judging by published examples, he and his students had counted words of nearly a hundred thousand sentences in works of seventy authors from Spenser to Henry James. Half of Analytics is devoted to such analyses of sentence length, comparative predication, and ratios of force, with charts, diagrams, formulae, and equations. Willa wrote a number of satires on Sherman's analytics, recalled one of her friends, including some poems on the "counting" assignments. Though unsigned, the "count" poems in the Hesperian are easily recognizable. For example, on December 1, 1893, there was "He Took Analytics":
I am dying, Egypt, dying,
Ebbs the crimson life-tide fast;
And the dark Plutonian shadows
Gather on the evening blast;
Ah I counted, Queen, and counted,
And rows of figures massed
Till e'en my days are numbered,
And I'm counted out at last.

Cather's skepticism notwithstanding, it's undoubtedly a positive trend that increasingly diverse segments of our society are coming to believe that "finding the reasoned facts" is a good thing to do. As for Lucius Adelno Sherman, well, I'd call him a digital humanist avant la lettre.

A version of this post appeared on Language Log.

Mark Liberman is a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Linguistics Data Consortium.


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