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My question is about the applications of the term "alicorn." What I know is that it's a medieval term used for supposed compounds of unicorn horn. Later Peers Anthony used the term for a horned pegasus/winged unicorn in his books in the 80's. In this century, the My Little Pony franchise adopted that definition too.

I'm clearly missing something, however. If you plug "alicorn" into google ngram, you'll see a massive spike from 1925 to 1934, that dwarfs any of the later uses. What was going on then? Why the sudden jump, and then the equally sudden drop?

results of google ngram for "alicorn"

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    Have you tried googling 'alicorn' with one or more of those dates? I got Alicorn Glimmer (a military plane) for 1925. Not sure if that can account for the spike, though. Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 14:34
  • I did, and a certainly got hits, but that's a bit of "lamp post logic." If I search for later date ranges I get more hits, but they don't seem to be represented on the Ngram.
    – Pete
    Commented Feb 8, 2020 at 22:15

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This has never been a common term, so few uses can make a large spike in the graph. Google Books (and therefore, Google NGrams) knows about three works from 1930 that apparently use it. Their concentration in time was not immediately obvious because above, you did not turn off the curve smoothing. Here are the text fragments:

... superstitions about the virtue of the alicorn (Unicorn's horn).

... many sources of the unicorn's horn — the " alicorn," as he terms it.

James Alicorn. Accountants

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  • I think that's PART of the answer, but it doesn't explain why the spike is so high compared to, for instance 1980. If you plug that into the book search, you'll get 3x as many hits. Given that a best selling author started using the term, and it started to show up in annuals, anthologies, reviews, etc, where's the spike in the 80's.
    – Pete
    Commented Feb 8, 2020 at 22:11
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    @Pete I think the effect was smaller because there were more books released in the '80s. The chart doesn't show absolute numbers of mentions, it shows a rate of mentions. Commented Feb 8, 2020 at 22:50
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In 1930, Odell Shepard, English professor at Trinity College (Hartford, Connecticut), published a book called The Lore of the Unicorn, an attempt at an exhaustive history of the unicorn in literature and historical writings from the fourth century BCE to the nineteenth century CE. This book, which has been reissued in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, contains the word alicorn/alicorns over 150 times. On page 101, Shepard explains the origin of the word:

In order to avoid repeated cacophany [sic] I shall use the word "alicorn" to mean "unicorn's horn" wherever it seems convenient to do so in the following chapters. This is not quite a neologism; it is an adoption of the Italian word alicorno.

It's possible that Shepard's work may have (re-)kindled interest in unicorns and popularized the word "alicorn." Three years after Shepard's book came out, Alexander Laing published a novel called The Sea Witch about the experiences of the captain of a clipper ship in the mid-nineteenth century. This novel uses the term alicorn/alicorns about 25 times. It has a chapter called "The Narwhal's Tusk" in which Laing compares the narwhal's single horn to "alicorns — horns of the four-footed monoceros."

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