Keyword frequencies in anglophone psychology

  • John G. BenjafieldEmail author


A sample of the keywords belonging to the anglophone vocabulary of psychology was created using PsycINFO and the Oxford English Dictionary. Keyword frequencies were analyzed for four equal periods between 1887 and 2014. Keywords that entered psychology before 1919 (e.g., learning, perception) have the highest frequency of usage across all periods. This effect is consistent with the principle of an early mover advantage, whereby the earlier a keyword enters the vocabulary of psychology, the greater will be its subsequent frequency. The most frequently occurring keywords contain exemplars of a core lexicon made up largely of keywords that had ordinary language meanings before they acquired psychological senses (e.g., depression, stress). These keywords not only give rise to a feeling of understanding in most psychologists, but also in many laypersons as well. Low frequency keywords are exemplars of a technical lexicon, the meanings of which are more specialized than those of the core lexicon. Keywords in the vocabulary of psychology are used in ways that are consistent with the words-as-tools analogy derived from the approaches to language of Wittgenstein and Zipf. Members of the early vocabulary of anglophone psychology have many meanings and so are easy to use in many different contexts. However, the fact that they are habitually used does not mean that they are the best tools for the job. It is time to think seriously about which keywords may be bad habits and need replacing by better tools.


Early mover advantage Core lexicon Multiwords Technical lexicon Zipf 


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© Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, Hungary 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Brock UniversitySt. CatharinesCanada

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