Typical

This morning, Ben Thompson tweeted out this:

Everyone looks at Google as the archetypical startup, but in fact they are a massive exception. Few succeed on tech alone, or first job.
Ben Thompson (@benthompson) Jan 15 2017 8:28 AM

Never mind the context, or whether Ben is right—that’s usually a good bet—what I focused on was archetypical. Surely, I thought, he means archetypal. So I looked it up in Terminology and found that it’s a real word, with a meaning that’s identical to archetypal.

Archetypical in Terminology

Merriam-Webster, which you can access from Terminology, says archetypical is less common than archetypal, which made me suspect it’s a mishearing that’s made its way into the language. So off I went to Google’s Ngram Viewer to see how the two words stack up.1

Archetypal ngram

Although archetypal is, as Merriam-Webster says, distinctly more common, archetypical goes back to the beginning of the 19th century at least. So if it’s a mishearing, it’s a mishearing with a long tradition.

Looking back at the Terminology entry, there’s another word I’ve never heard or used: prototypal. I’ve always used prototypical. What does the Google Ngram Viewer say about them?

Prototypal ngram

You can’t see it in the graph above, but if we replot the portion from 1800 to 1960, we see that prototypal used to be in common use. Prototypical took over during my lifetime.

Prototypal ngram 1800-1960

Using archetypal on the one hand and prototypical on the other, which is what I do and is clearly the most common, makes no sense. Maybe I’ll start using prototypal to accentuate my already considerable eccentricity.


  1. In theory, I could have embedded a live iframe version of the graph here that would allow you to mouse across to get specific data for each year, but I was unable to get the iframe to size itself properly. ↩︎