Monday, September 9, 2013

Word Cloud of The Catcher in the Rye

This word cloud is based not on a published book cover, but on an artist’s homage that is, in my opinion, far more striking and evocative than any of the “official” versions. The artist, M. S. Corley, was kind enough to give me permission to adapt his work; please look at the rest of his oeuvre at his website, The Art of M.S. Corley.

Three of the top five words in The Catcher in the Rye – “goddam”, “hell” and “damn” – are curse words, which of course is one of the reasons this is one of the most banned books in school libraries. In fact, continuing down the list with “chrissake”, “bastard”, “crap”, “sonuvabitch”, etc., my rough calculation is that just over 5% of the book consists of words that would not be acceptable at a 1951 supper table.
But they and many of the top words, like “lousy” and “terrific”, are essential to the voice Salinger gives his protagonist, Holden Caulfield. One of the most thematic and memorable words in the book is “phony”, but Salinger uses it relatively sparingly and strategically: 35 times, ranking it #46, behind Holden’s iconic “hat”, featured on this cover.
Holden calls everyone “old”, such as “old Phoebe” and “old Stradlater”, but the concordance software omits the most common 1,000 words in the English language so the word clouds aren’t full of words like “the” and “I”. “Old” appears 397 times (more than “or”!), which would have put it in the #1 spot, beating “goddam” with 245 appearances. Interestingly, when compared to the word frequencies in the Brown corpus of written English, “old” appears no more often in The Catcher in the Rye than it does elsewhere (it is 31st when ranked by frequency and also 31st by “keyness” compared to Brown).
“Phoebe” is the seventh-most-used word in the book; Holden mentions his sister’s name 115 times. “Rye” appears only seven times, most often as “If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye.” The book’s title, and the word “catcher”, appear just once, during Holden's conversation with Phoebe in Chapter 22.
Among the words that appear only once are “bassackwards”, “oversexed”, the brand name “Tattersall”, the curiously spelled “wutchamacallit” (the more common “whatchamacallit” does not appear) and several phonetically caricatured French words like “voolay voo” (when Holden imitates the speech of Janine, a singer in the Wicker Bar). There are approximately* 75,000 words, and 3,500 unique words.
After I finished making this word cloud, I found out there is a plan to publish a posthumous sequel to The Catcher in the Rye in 2015. I have absolutely no comment to make about this.
For more information, please see the Wikipedia article about book, the Wikipedia article about the author, or this analysis of the themes in the book, including the hat. You can also see the method I used to determine the words and their frequencies. Last week, I posted a boring, traditional word cloud of this book; I’ve removed it, but you can see it here if you want.
 * See the method file for an explanation why these counts are approximate.

Word cloud created using Tagxedo.


  1. Found this and your takes on "Clockwork Orange" and "Fight Club" on reddit. This is so cool!

  2. This is the coolest thing I've ever seen, is it possible to make a poster out of it or would you need the permission of the original artist? I would love to have this on my wall.


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