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I was experimenting with Google's ngram tool, and came upon this curious result:

erection usage frequency, 1800-2000

My assumption would have been with the more open attitudes towards discussion of sex, usage for "erection" would have gone up. Yet it has gone down by over a factor of 3 since 1876. Searching some old period bands (such as 1820-1840), I saw that the primary use for "erection" had been in the context of erecting a building. However, the current biological meaning existed as well.

My guess is that people are using the building-related "erection" a lot less, to avoid unintended sexual connotations. If so, they substitute some other terminology. Either that or we write a lot less, proportionately, about building than we used to.

I added "hard-on" to the graph, suspecting it was supplanting "erection", but as the graph shows, it is still relatively insignificant. (It began steady ascent around 1958.) I cannot think of another word likely to be used in books that would be supplanting the biological meaning.

BTW, while writing this, I graphed the same ngram, but terminated it at 2016. The slight upward slope has continued steadily since about 1996. It had yet to reach .00040%, though. This may be illustrating what I expected initially, more open attitudes toward sex.

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    Probably to the same place as Holmes and Watson’s ejaculations have gone to. – tchrist Jan 22 '17 at 17:49
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    If you remove the hyphen the usage of "hard on" is on the up. i.stack.imgur.com/ynu4M.png – Martin Smith Jan 22 '17 at 17:50
  • I like how you said "experimenting". Anyway, you can use the year-range search links for Google books below the graph. A cursory look suggests that your hunch is right. – Tushar Raj Jan 22 '17 at 17:52
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    If you look at the original Ngram chart, you'll notice two things: there are no matches included for "hard-on" in the "Search in Google Books" results beneath the graph, and the chart bears a banner label reading "Replaced hard-on with hard - on to match how we processed the books." In short, Ngram is not designed to search for hyphenated words, so it's useless for "hard-on." – Sven Yargs Jan 22 '17 at 17:54
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    As a title I would have been tempted with "Why are erections falling?" Is the question in your title? I think you may have answered it yourself. Nowadays writers are avoiding "erected" and "erections" for obvious reasons, and as for tiny number of "hard-on"s , I think you'll find they are being employed elsewhere on the Internet. – Mari-Lou A Jan 22 '17 at 18:59
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Tom22 should get credit for this answer. I read his comment awhile ago, but he sounded dismissive of the idea that aroused might be picking up the slack. After just now doing several more comparative graphs, I see that he may well have been onto something.

access interactive graph enter image description here

I thought about including "woody" from Martin Smith's graph. My searches, however, indicate that it is relatively rarely used in a sexual sense. Most results relate to wood itself, or the male name (eg. Woody Harrelson).

  • arousal: not significant until around 1950 when it began a significant rise. It began tapering down around 1983, but still maintains more than 2/3 of its peak in 1983.
  • arouse: steady, slow decline during most of the 1900s, with a very recent and small up-slope since about 2002
  • aroused: huge decline since about 1936, with slight up-slope since about 2002
  • erection: peak around 1876, followed by steady decline until 1997. It has been slowly ascending since then.
  • hard on: enjoying a slow, almost steady rise since 1820

All the words except arousal have more general meanings. Even "hard on" is most often found in a non-sexual context. (eg, "She worked hard on her job.") Statistics without a known causality can be very misleading. Yet it seems compelling to me that we see the five words together suggest a coalesced sum total of the sexual connotation of erection. What erection, arouse, and aroused may have lost in any sexual connotation sure looks like it has been picked up by arousal. An exception is hard on, changing slowly and maybe gaining more sexual connotation over time, without losing any of the non-sexual usage. (Hardon and hard-on are statistically irrelevant.)

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  • You did all the work. I thought I might be on to something but really haven't messed around with the charts enough to do it. You deserve extra points for all the puns too ! – Tom22 Jan 23 '17 at 1:37
  • @Tom22 Heh, except for the question title, I was not intentionally punning. I've been reminded recently that my sense of humor is not shared universally, so my intent here is to play it straight. Still, I suspect there is an inner 12 year-old (i12yo) in all of us that is all too happy to form connections the author did not intend. That is not to say the author's i12yo did not influence the manner in which he spoke. – RichF Jan 23 '17 at 2:59
  • I could not help but notice on the graph that almost all expressions show a slight rise after 2000, approximately around the time of the FDA approval of Viagra. I just ran another ngram comparing erection with erectile, as in disfunction, and guess what popped up? A rise in both after 2000. – Cascabel Jan 23 '17 at 4:54
  • Here is the ngram. – Cascabel Jan 23 '17 at 5:00
  • @RichF As implied in your answer, this is not and cannot be the history of a single word. Instead, it should feature here as the history of a meaning, and then we could more comfortably include all the words that relate to that meaning, and see how they drop and spike through time according to developments. – Dennis R. Hidalgo Jan 10 '18 at 7:49

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