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I was wondering about different ways of writing "via" when a graph of this word's usage showed up. There is a peak in the years 1529-32 and then a sudden decline then again a peak at 1632 and it just grows. What happened here?

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    I suspect that what you're seeing is more an artifact of Google's Ngram algorithm than reflecting English usage, especially in the earlier centuries. Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 23:40
  • @KillingTime in other words as google gets more data the graph will become more and more straight/linear? Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 23:41
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    Older works are more likely to have faded print, old fonts and page damage that makes them more prone to OCR errors (i.e. the computer mis-reads words). Also there's survivorship bias because the older works that still exist today are not necessarily representative of the language of their time. Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 23:48
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    Under the graph, there are bubbles. Click the 1500 bubble to see books where via appears. They're in Italian. Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 23:52
  • Why do you think this was ever meaningfully written as other than an all-lowercase words in normal sentence context?
    – tchrist
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 2:59

3 Answers 3

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Many of those early uses in Google's "English" corpus are actually works written in Latin (or Italian). In Latin, via is an extremely common word, usually meaning "road" (see Lewis & Short). The modern English use is ultimately derived from that Latin word but only gained popularity later.

The inclusion of Latin texts appears to be a general problem in Google's corpus; look at the chart for the Latin puer.

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  • I think this answer provides a better history of the word "via" than can be discerned from use of the Google Ngram viewer. Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 5:11
  • This doesn't quite answer the question (one may wonder about the ups and downs in the frequency of the word's use regardless of the language), but it does show it to be outside the scope of this site.
    – jsw29
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 16:46
  • @jsw29 The answer can't make the question off-topic Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 23:34
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    @AzorAhai-him-, sorry I haven't fully spelled out what I had in mind: explaining the change in the frequency would be off-topic, because it is, as it turns out, a change in Latin, and not in English, but it is well within the scope of this site to explain, as this answer does, why the change, of which the OP reasonably thought that it concerns English, is not really a matter of English.
    – jsw29
    Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 21:39
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Etymonline says via started to be used in English in the late 18th century:

1779, from Latin via "by way of," ablative form of via "way, road, path, highway, channel, course" (from PIE root *wegh- "to go, move, transport in a vehicle," which is also the source of English way (n.)).

This does correspond to what Ngram is showing after the 1800s.

I had a look in Shakespeare who wrote his plays around the turn of the 17th century, and I was surprised to find it used with the Italian meaning of:

exclamation (suvvia) come on!, (allontanati) go away!, (a un animale) shoo! (Collins)

Here is a quote from Merchant of Venice [II, 2]:

'Via!' says the fiend; 'away!' says the fiend; 'for the heavens, rouse up a brave mind,' says the fiend, 'and run.'

But then he used many Italian elements in his writings:

Shakespeare had a very strong knowledge of the Italian language. He treats the Italian language in a curious and intimate manner, and is capable of creating new meanings in English, of playing with a foreign language in a way quite different to other English dramatists, whose relation to Italian is external, a simple question of exoticism and color. (FlorioShakespeareblog)

It is not excluded, therefore, that it is Shakespeare who promoted the word into English and later on it acquired other usages.

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The history of “via” is well illustrated in the following extract from Grammophobia from which you can see the extension of its usage during the 20th century which may account for its higher frequency. As for usage examples from sources such as Google Books, the resulting graph is influenced by usages that refer to other languages, especially the Italian one where via is a very common term.

When “via” entered English in the late 18th century, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, it meant “by way of; by a route passing through.”

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, “via” was used in this limited travel sense. Merriam-Webster’s gives the following example: “We traveled from Boston to Philadelphia via New York City.”

In the 1920s and ’30s, according to the usage guide, the preposition “began to take on extended meanings” and refer to “the means of travel rather than the route taken.”

  • For example, “We traveled from St. Louis to Chicago via rail” or “The trip would have taken half the time via air.”

Around the same time, “via” began being used to mean “through the medium of” or “by the agency of” in contexts that had nothing to do with travel.

  • Examples: “She spoke to her mother via telephone” and “The message was sent via telegraph.”

These new usages caught on quickly, according to Merriam-Webster’s, despite criticism from language authorities who were aware of the word’s Latin roots.

“If you use via in any but the original sense,” M-W says, “you still run the risk of ruffling a few feathers, but you will be in good company.”

We’re comfortable using “via” in all the senses mentioned above. For now, though, we wouldn’t extend its use beyond those. But English is a living language, and other senses of the word may one day become acceptable.

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  • This responds to the title of the question but not to its full explication, which specifically refers to the developments in the 16th and 17th centuries.
    – jsw29
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 16:49
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    @jsw29 — The “developments“ in the 16th and 17th centuries are artifacts of Google Books cataloging. OP’s question includes “What happened here?” And this answer includes “usages that refer to other languages.” Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 2:16

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