If you’ve ever explained to someone how a gadget or app or website works, you’ve probably used a construction like “it lets me” or “it lets you”. You probably didn’t know you were on the cutting edge of language change.
Language change isn’t immediately noticeable to those who are experiencing it–we notice when other groups start to speak differently, but it’s unlikely that our own linguistic habits will strike us as odd or innovative. That’s one reason why Ben Schmitt’s Prochronisms site is such fun: by analysing TV scripts from Mad Men and Downton Abbey, and comparing them to corpora from the same periods, he identifies locutions that have evaded the scriptwriters’ attempts to anachronize their dialogue (e.g. shenanigans, techniques, OK, your mum and goal is to, all spoken in Downton Abbey, are unlikely to have been used in the real post-Edwardian England).
Often it’s the usages that seem the most unremarkable to us that can be the most interesting when they are shown to be highly uncharacteristic of the recent past. So it is with the phrase “lets you,” which popped up as a relatively unlikely bigram for Mad Men‘s Don Draper to be using (he says, “your mother lets you do that?”). Relatively, in that “lets you” is much, much commoner now than it was then]. Schmitt gives us the following two graphs, from Google’s n-Gram viewer, which plots relative frequencies of search terms in the Google Books corpus [click to biggen]:
As you can see, “lets you” is relatively rare until about 1980, at which point it spikes dramatically in frequency. What’s going on (Schmitt asks)? His first idea was to try out different applications of “lets you”. Draper says, “Your mother lets you do that” – perhaps “lets you do” is a fixed phrase that catches on? Not according to the following graph, which shows an even greater spike with “lets you see”:
So we need a new hypothesis, and some new data and graphs. My hunch would be to look at the other side of the “lets you” bigram. To maximize the capture of data, let’s abstract “Your mother” to “she”:
A very different picture. No “hockey stick”, and not even a real positive trend, although things look steadily upwards from about 1960 on (which is when Mad Men is set – could Don Draper have coined “lets you”?).
So what accounts for the “lets you” spike, if not locutions like “Your mother lets you”? The following n-gram chart tells the story:
It’s the third person singular neuter that is driving essentially all “lets you” growth after 1980. And in fact it’s not the verb “let” itself that is the innovation, but rather the use of the concept of “letting” to express that non-humans can make certain things possible. In fact the synonym “allow” produces an even sharper spike, at around the same time:
Google lets you look at some of the book data, and if you clued in to the absolutely unremarkable start of this sentence, you may already have a guess as to the kind of thing that’s here. Here are some examples from the 1980s:
- BetaScan lets you go fast forward or reverse without interrupting the image on the screen. [Newsweek, vol 96, 1980]
- BUILD lets you build a file of DOS commands [Byte, vol.6, 1981]
- TalkTalk is a headphone with a boom mike that lets you talk hands-free with someone else blocks away. [Popular Science, Dec. 1981]
- What says you’re mortal? Death. What lets you be immortal? Death. [Samuel Hazo, To Paris: Poems, 1981]
- And no VCR lets you get more out of television than RCA’s new SelectaVision 650. [Popular Mechanics, Nov. 1981]
- Now there’s Porta-Probe! Porta-Probe is a high intensity flashlight with a gooseneck extension and a handy alligator clip. The gooseneck lets you point the light in the direction you need it. The alligator clip lets you attach Porta- Probe where you’re working. [advertisement in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, Nov. 1983].
- You can quantize music, moving everything to the nearest specified note value; this lets you smooth out rhythmic rough spots. [PC Magazine, 30 Oct 1990]
So my guess is that the Google Books corpus (the basis for n-grams frequencies) starts to reflect this change in the use of lets/allows especially well with the incorporation of technical discussions in print media, and especially with the proliferation of computing magazines in the early 1980s. So Draper’s use is not really anachronistic at all–mothers were “letting” kids do things in the 1960s, only machines weren’t.
PS. “Let”, just by the way, is a paleoantagonym: let, v.1 (“to allow”; from O.E. lǽtan) and let, v.2 (“to prevent”; from O.E. lęttan), were in concurrent use from the ninth century until the latter became restricted to archaic and poetic writing after the late seventeenth century, and fell out of use completely after the nineteenth.
PPS. If you like playing with Ngrams, and if you have a healthy suspicion of what can be gleaned from them, LL has a recent analysis of Ngrams in a journal paper on “the changing psychology of culture.“