Two approaches to keywords

On July 4th, 2013, I gave a presentation on keywords at a meeting of the Keywords Project at Jesus College, Cambridge University. The Keywords Project uses Raymond Williams’ concept of keywords as being socially prominent words (e.g. art, industry, media or society) that are capable of bearing interlocking, yet sometimes contradictory contemporary meanings, and the group meets a couple of times each year to discuss new keywords that have emerged in society. The group carry out analysis using a variety of different methods, involving deriving etymologies from the Oxford English Dictionary, making use of Google n-grams, referring to academic research on particular concepts and investigating corpora.

I was invited to give an alternative (or rather, complementary) perspective that was more focussed on around corpus linguistics. I discussed how the concept of keywords differs greatly in CL, and how keyness can be extended to include tagged words, semantic or grammatical groups of words, multi-word units or even punctuation marks. Using various reference corpora, I showed how keyness techniques could be used to aid the identification of potential emerging keywords, while concordancing and collocational analysis could help to to identify the range of meanings around a word at a given point in time.

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