The older dictionaries I have include "remove from a container" as the only meaning of unpack. More recent dictionaries list "to analyze the nature of by examining in detail : " or "analyze (something) into its component elements. " as a tertiary meaning.

When did unpack start to be used to mean analyze?

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    I don't have an answer, but "parsing" and "unpacking" are very strongly linked in computer science, and your tertiary definition(s) are practical definitions of "to parse". – horatio Jan 22 '14 at 20:04

The answer is 1596. That is the first example in the OED of a figurative meaning of 'unpack' - see below.

The OED does include a specific meaning of 'unpack' as relates to computing. Its first reference is 1954.

OED meaning 2a. (part-of) fig. 1596 T. Nashe Haue with you to Saffron-Walden sig. K4, The strange vntraffiqu't phrases, by him new vented and vnpackt.

OED meaning 5.

  1. Computing. To convert (an item of stored data) into two or more separate items; to retrieve data from (a record). Cf. pack v.1 4d.

1954 Computers & Automation Dec. 22/2 Unpack, to separate packed items of information each into a separate machine word.

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  • vntraffiqu’t is a fantastic spelling. You know it’s English, but it still looks more like Inuktitut or something like that. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 22 '14 at 20:20
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I assume it means 'untrafficked'. – WS2 Jan 22 '14 at 20:22
  • Oh yes, no question about that. It’s just a fantastic way of spelling it, making it look utterly un-English, and yet recognisable. :-) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 22 '14 at 20:37
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I'm no historian of language, but 1596 was Shakespeare's heyday. But this word seems to come from the time of Chaucer, two hundred years earlier. – WS2 Jan 22 '14 at 20:49

Searching Google Ngram for “unpack the meaning” (which I assume is a typical example), the results suggest that about 1956 was a starting point, and usage really took off from about 1986.

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