Anyone living in Boston or in the Greater Boston-area since the Marathon bombings has become quite familiar with the rising popularity and increased usage of the phrase “Boston Strong.” Whether in hashtags (#BostonStrong), internet memes, bracelets, t-shirts, Boston-area sports, or philanthropic events, “Boston Strong” has emerged as a popular phrase and become part of day-to-day conversations about Boston.
If you want to see more about how this phrase developed and became popular, consider reading through Ben Zimmer’s (correspondent to The Boston Globe) article. Zimmer describes “Boston Strong” as “the phrase that rallied the city,” and attributes its jump in popularity and usage to a progression of successful “X Strong” slogan credited to a particular cause (i.e. Livestrong, Army Strong, Jersey Strong). Zimmer also briefly considers the immediate origins of the phrase (a few days after the Marathon Bombings tied to a fundraising effort). The rise in popular usage of the phrase has also resulting in an increase of trademark requests for “Boston Strong.” Shannon Sadowski, of New Leaf Legal (business/transactional law firm with active blog), has traced and commented upon this rise in (unsuccessful) trademark requests for “Boston Strong” in her two part blog series (“Boston Strong: The Trademark War Begins [Part 1][Part 2]”).
“Boston Strong” has evidently become a very widely used and applied phrase when describing or talking about Boston. In the Our Marathon archive, many items (images, tweets, cards, etc…) exhibit or refer to “Boston Strong” or “#BostonStrong.” But what about in people’s stories of the day of the bombings? Did people use this “Boston Strong” in their reflections? If not, why? And if so, how often was it used and in what context? Moreover, are stories that include a reference to “Boston Strong” different or unique from stories in this corpus that do not?
Before jumping directly into how many stories include a reference to “Boston Strong,” one must be aware that it is written or spoken in a variety of ways. It can be with or without a hashtag (#), with or without a space preceding “Boston”, or with or without a space between “Boston” and “Strong” (i.e. Boston Strong, BostonStrong, #BostonStrong, #Boston Strong, or # Boston Strong). These variations do not lend themselves to a simple find and search or to using Voyant or Paper Machines as a comparison. However, since I have already prepped these stories into text files using Text Wrangler, I can use a regular expression as a means of capturing each variation of “Boston Strong” in a single search. Regular expressions (or regex for short) are special text strings for describing a particular search pattern. But instead of being limited to a simple word or group of word searching, regular expressions allow you to layer conditions into your search. Here is the regular expression I used to parse through the text files and find all variations of “Boston Strong” in the stories:
If you are not familiar with regular expressions, the “?” allows you to search for the preceding character either zero or one time. The “\s” character refers to a space. So my regular expression looks to search for a hashtag either zero or one times(“0,1” from now on), a space (0,1), the entire string “Boston,” a space (0,1), followed by the entire string “Strong.” Here is a screenshot of my results:
This result surprised me a bit. Only 13 references to variations of “Boston Strong” in a corpus of 347 stories? Also there seemed, at first to be a relatively even divide between the Globe Stories and Public Submissions. Eight of the Public Submissions and five Globe Stories included a reference to “Boston Strong.” But when we consider the different sizes of the corpora (Public Submissions-57; Globe Stories-289), we can notice that those 8 stories of 57 total Public Submissions represent a much larger percentage (14.03%) than the 5 stories of 289 from the Globe Stories (1.73%). How do we account for this discrepancy? What makes those who submitted their stories through the Our Marathon contribution plugin more likely to use
After back-tracking into the individual items in the Our Marathon archive, the answer is actually pretty simple: Time. Each of the eight Public Submissions that referred to “Boston Strong” were submitted into the archive after October 2013, six months after the Marathon bombings. The spike in usage in these reflection stories roughly correlates with the growing popularity of the phrase. The Globe Stories, on the other hand, were primarily compiled during the week or so immediately after the bombings. Although “Boston Strong” had started to circulate even then, it certainly was not as widely used while people were contributing their stories to the GlobeLab site. This conclusion is still interesting, however, because it demonstrates how the use of “Boston Strong” in personal reflections of the events roughly correlates to the increased use, popularity, and applicability of the phrase in general. Moreover, this conclusion sets the foundation for looking into future use of the phrase. Will this pattern continue? Will future submissions show an increase in number of stories including “Boston Strong”? Will it become a permanent part of Boston vocabulary or will the phrase slowly go out of use?
These are all interesting questions, but I think that there is one more series of questions that we can answer based on this data. Are the stories that use the phrase “Boston Strong” distinguishable from the rest of the stories? And if so, in what way(s)?
Voyant’s “Word Trend” tool can help us make some preliminary observations. By prepping two different text files and uploading them into Voyant, we can compare word trends in those stories that use “Boston Strong” and those that do not. Since only thirteen stories that use “Boston Strong,” compared to 334 that do not, looking at the Raw Frequencies of usage will not help us too much. Instead, we can begin to formulate some conclusions by looking at the Relative Frequencies (number of times used per 10,000 words) of different words in the group of stories using “Boston Strong” compared to those that do not.
To start, let us take a look at differences between how these two corpora use some of the words we analyzed in the previous post (“Where are the bombers?”): “explosion,” “bomb,” “blast,” “explosions,” and “bombs.”I chose these five terms because they were the top five words (with the exception of “smoke”) used to describe the explosions in the entire corpus of stories. You might notice that for four out of the five terms (“bombs” appears relatively consistently between both corpora) the relative frequency of usage for “Boston Strong” stories are significantly less than the rest of the stories. Each of these four terms used at least ten less times per 10,000 words in stories that use “Boston Strong,” which is fairly significant when the most times any of these words are used in the entire corpus is 184 (bomb). This difference in usage of terms referring to the bomb might suggest that those stories that use “Boston Strong” are less likely to dwell on describing the explosions. But if these “Boston Strong” stories are not focusing on the explosions themselves, what are they looking at? What makes these stories distinct from the rest of the stories other than a tendency not to mention the bombs as frequently?
In order to explore this further, I began looking at some of the most commonly used “positive” and “negative” words in the entire corpus. For “negative” terms, I selected words that referred to actions of anguish and unpleasant mental states [crying(56), screaming(54), panic(49), fear(30), and confusion(20)]. For “positive” terms, I selected strong(33), help(59), love(26), and support(25). I realize that using strong might skew the results a bit, considering we already know that each of the 13 “Boston Strong” stories use the word strong. However, strong was used in a variety of contexts (all positively though) throughout the entire corpus. First, we should consider the “negative” terms:Looking at these discrepancies between the Relative Frequencies of these terms in non-“Boston Strong” stories versus “Boston Strong” stories, one can begin to see a pattern. Like the terms referring to the explosions, one can see that stories that used “Boston Strong” were less likely to use each of these “negative” terms than the rest of the stories that did not use Boston Strong.* By pairing these two graphs of words referring to the explosions and negative words with the Word Trend graph of “positive” words, one can actually begin making some conclusions about the overall tone of “Boston Strong” stories versus non-“Boston Strong” stories: For these terms, we see an opposite trend than the comparisons between terms referring to the bombings and negative terms. Stories that use “Boston Strong” contain a greater density of “positive” terms such as strong, love, help, and support. These three trends indicate that stories using the phrase “Boston Strong” are less likely to dwell on the actual explosions, less likely use negative language, and more likely to focus on more positive aspects while crafting their stories. This is not to say that stories that use “Boston Strong” are happy and upbeat. However, the preliminary data does seem to indicate that “Boston Strong” stories tend to include more positive reflections compared to stories that do not.
This claim can be supported by zooming in on the context surrounding people’s use of “Boston Strong” in their stories:
- “…Goodness in people exists. I will never forget the events of that day or the week following. We are Boston Strong and we will be back April 21, 2014….”
- “…in a city we all love and call home. Boston Strong!…”
- “…I will remember what we as a city overcame on that fateful day. We are Boston Strong!…”
- “…You may have bombed our city, but you cannot break our spirit. This is Boston. We are Boston Strong…”
- “…In time it will get better, but this will be part of my life now forever. BOSTON STRONG…”
- “…to show the world that Boston is Strong… #BostonStrong #Boston2013…”
- “…’Boston Strong’; ‘My thoughts are for those in Boston’; ‘Hope for the best for those in Boston’…”
- “…“You do not mess with Boston.” “Boston Strong” was not created as some random catchphrase to boost morale. It was created because Boston truly is a strong city…”
- “…[name withheld] and his friend [name withheld] are 2 of the many heros that ran to help others. One of those being [name withheld]. This experience will forever be burned in my memory. Boston Strong…”
- “…Devastation and then Boston came together. Boston strong!!…”
- “…My heart breaks for the victims, for all affected, and for this city that I love so much. But, the good always prevails. Boston Strong…”
The final two stories just end “#BostonStrong,” without much context surrounding the terms. But by zooming in on the context, one realizes that these stories that use “Boston Strong” are far from happy or cheerful. They bluntly deal with the “devastation,” and that “they may have bombed our city,” and their “heart breaks for the victims.” These stories and experiences might be tragic or painful, but by using or describing “Boston Strong” in their submissions, the people who wrote these stories ended on a hopeful, positive, resilient note.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Share Your Story: Storytelling and the Boston Marathon Bombings
- Where are the Bombers?: What Can Word Clouds Tell Us?
- #BostonStrong (this post)
- “Fireworks or Cannons”: Phrase Nets of the Marathon Stories
- Conclusions and Future Research
*Author’s Note: I realize that these results/conclusions might be wrong or skewed given that we are only working with thirteen stories that use a variation of the phrase “Boston Strong.” However, I feel that these preliminary findings are still valuable not only in thinking about the differences between stories that use “Boston Strong” and those that do not, but also as baseline from which we can judge future submissions. As Our Marathon’s selection of stories continues to grow, I hope to revisit these conclusions, in particular.