The Language of Battle and Siege

For those who are too lazy to do the Google Ngram Viewer themselves, here are a few more results.

We’ll start with a repeat of the English language works from last post (recalling that English language works include both English and American works, maybe even a Commonwealth publication or two):

Relative frequency of "battle" and "siege" in Google Books Ngram Viewer

Of course it’s always fun to try to fit such trends to historical details. One minor detail that I’m struck by, but will let you explore at your leisure: why the big drop in “battle” right before 1800? A lack of wars to talk about, or interest in?

If we want to focus on specific sieges or battles, we can add “of” to limit the results:

Results with "battle of" and "siege of" (no capitalization)

Notice that the shapes of the two curves remain basically the same with either “battle” or “battle of,” although there are far fewer results after adding “of,” with battle in particular losing many results. We also see a few of the peaks in the 20C flattened out. Presumably, as one commenter mentioned in the last post, “battle” was a much more popular metaphor than “siege.”

Now refreshed on the English results, we can now look at a non-English language. Unfortunately Google still has extremely few works in German or Dutch (try an Ngram search limited to German on “schlacht” and “belagerung” and you’ll see what I mean), so we are stuck with French, which is fine with me.

We’ll start by searching for bataille and siège, the French-language equivalents, in Google Books:

French-language books using battle and siege

It seems that even the “siege-loving” French were still awfully interested in battle, far more so than siege at just about any point in time. Throwing methodological caution to the wind, we might wonder about a number of points:

  • The French “bataille” had a lot more peaks than the English “battle.” There were a surprising number of peaks in Louis XIV’s reign, when they weren’t fighting a lot of battles. And the French also see a spike of bataille in particular during WWI; the French also seem to prefer bataille to siège for the Great War. The English (which includes American works remember) don’t see a similar spike in battle even during WWI, rather a steady decline throughout the 20C, although from a much higher starting point c. 1900. Limiting the search results to British English messes things up, making me think there’s a problem with the metadata.
  • You see a similar pattern between English battle and French bataille in the 17C through mid 18C. But comparing the English siege to the French siège shows a divergence: siège rockets up in the late 19C and stays strong among the French, even surpassing bataille at points. Presumably this is in part French reflection on the fall of Paris in 1870? Another possibility is that in France especially there was a wave of historical publications in the late 19C, and at least some of these “siège” occurrences are from this interest in history.
  • But, we have a problem if we start thinking about the French use of the word “siège,” or look at the books our results are showing us. I discovered this problem first hand when I was  in France working on my diss. I met with some friends of an old acquaintance, and I told them I worked on “sièges.” Then one of them started asking me about furniture. It took me a minute to realize that she thought I studied the history of chairs (I should have said “guerre de siège” or some such). In French, the word “siège” not only means siege, but also “seat.” And not only a seat that you might sit on, but also a seat of power or, in religious terms, a see; the Vatican, for example, is le Saint-Siège (the Holy See). So that would seem to really screw things up. Although, unless there was a shift in the French language about the use of “siège,” the overall trend of siège over time should still tell us something.

So we need to revise the chart. Perhaps we can add the French equivalent of “of” to it, i.e. “bataille de” and “siège de”, although even this won’t eliminate every non-siege siège.

French-language results for bataille de and siège de

With the modified format, it decreases the number of results, and flattens a peak or two in the 18C, but doesn’t seem to have a huge influence on the trends. There is also a big drop in bataille before 1650 when we add the “de,” which reminds us of another linguistic complication: the French (early modern especially) also used the word “bataille” for many concepts other than a battle event. Examples include a field (champs de bataille), the central part of the battle formation (corps de bataille), a battle order or formation (ordre de bataille, marcher en bataille), a warhorse (cheval de bataille), and even various ranks (maréchal or sergeant de bataille). This is where it’s important to think about the language of your sources, and to have a contemporary dictionary at hand. In other words, the word “bataille” is even more embedded in the French language than “battle” is in English.

Variations of French "bataille"

Anyone volunteer to dig deeper into the results for more insights?


  1. In addition to the qualifications made in the previous post, be sure to read Google’s explanation of how Ngram Viewer works.
  2. Remember that the non-English works in Google Books aren’t nearly as represented as the English, but c’est la vie.
  3. I still haven’t dealt with synonyms for siege and battle, such as blockade, combat, etc. And this especially goes for foreign languages.
  4. Related to #2 above, I haven’t dealt with any change in terminology over time.
  5. I have no idea how Google’s search algorithms deal with the various forms of de (du, de la, des).


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