• "Towards a new agenda for transforming war economies"
  • "Towards a new agenda for Japanese telecommunications"
  • "Towards a new age in the treatment of multiple myeloma"

As I mentioned in the comments, "It would be nice to know the initial use because it would give me some insight into the language and trends that either birthed the phrase or required its invention."

I ask out of curiosity. As a sub-question, are there any papers or books that cover the history and evolution of academic terminology and writing?

  • 2
    Why does it need an origin? There's a tradition of titles beginning with "towards a", and "a new" is a very common expression. Aug 6, 2014 at 12:56
  • 1
    Are you looking for the first time the phrase "Towards a new ...." was used? (without what you'd expect in front of it like we are working... or we are heading ... etc.)
    – Frank
    Aug 6, 2014 at 12:59
  • 5
    From 1843, The book will be entitled “Towards a New Theatre.” There will be plenty of earlier examples, I'm sure, but nothing that could meaningfully be called "the origin". Aug 6, 2014 at 13:01
  • 6
    Why is this question downvoted? It's quite interesting. To draw an analogy from my own field, I can tell you the reason there are so many papers titled "X Considered Harmful": because there was a single, seminal and incredibly influential paper titled "GOTO Considered Harmful". Note the parallel here: self-effacing titles constructed using the passive voice, which will nevertheless likely contain a call-to-action on the one hand, and (self-) promotional material on the other. It's a good question, and I would like to know too. +1
    – Dan Bron
    Aug 6, 2014 at 13:17
  • 1
    Then you should add that information to your question, the more info in your question the less likely it is that it will get voted to be put on hold for being 'unclear' or some other reason.
    – Frank
    Aug 6, 2014 at 14:26

3 Answers 3


The earliest example I can discover of an academic work whose title included the phrase towards a new is George Berkeley's An essay towards a new theory of vision, published in 1709. However, this seems to be a general instance of 17th–19th century authors who started their publications with the phrase An essay towards.

For example, we have An Essay towards solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances, Thomas Bayes, 1763; An essay towards an history of dancing ... by John Weaver, 1712; An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, John Wilkins, 1668.

An essay, in its older sense, meant "an attempt to do something" (see Merriam-Webster, noun sense 2; and to "make an essay towards" something meant simply "to attempt to do or accomplish" it. For example, in an article about the completion of the Erie Canal titled Facts and Observations In Relation to the Origin and Completion of the Erie Canal, published by a John Rutherford or Rutherfurd in 1825, we see that "in the year 1785 the Legislature appropriated $135, to enable Mr. Colles to make an essay towards effecting the object [the removal of obstructions in the Mohawk River]."

It appears from this that the multiple titles starting "An Essay Towards ..." might be rephrased as "An Attempt To Create ..." (with the appropriate change from gerund to infinitive), and simply represent a common use of language.

The question, of course, becomes whether titling a work Toward[s] a ... is in fact an abbreviation of the older An essay towards a... . It seems the most reasonable assumption, but I don't know how one would go about assembling a proof.

  • It seems likely that the abbreviation happened when the common meaning of "essay" changed from the attempt to the written report. Using the word in the title then seemed redundant.
    – Barmar
    Aug 11, 2014 at 19:02

The earliest example I can find is the 1668 work by John Wilkins: "An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language"¹ , where he proposed a universal language and a decimal system of measure not unlike the modern metric system.

Wilkins was well-known and regarded (having headed colleges at both Oxford and Cambridge, and helped found the Royal Society), and famous in later ages, and Philosophical Language appears to be his best-known work.

Using the Google NGram for "An essay towards" from 1650-1850 to investigate whether Wilkins' essay had a material impact on later authors, it turns out Philosophical Language doesn't show up at all (possibly too early). However, there is a large spike in 1713 as well as 1738; the former is almost certainly Bishop Berkley's An Essay Towards a New Theory of Vision. Googling suggests the latter is something called An Essay Towards the Character of the Late Chimpanzee, who Died Feb. 23, though there's no way to be sure.

Anyway, Berkley would have surely known of Wilkins, and may have borrowed the "Essay towards" construct from him. And while not large as the 1738 spike (nor the complete step function of 1713), there are spikes in the usage of Towards... every decade or two, with each generation almost certainly influencing the next.

So, given his influence and legacy, it is possible (though unknown) that Wilkins' title inspired the trend which continues today.

¹ And its simultaneously-published companion work "Alphabetical Dictionary", subtitled "Towards a comprehensive, and systematically defined, lexicon".

  • 2
    Footnote: turns out it was Wilkins, in Philosophical Language, who introduced the term "quadratic" (meaning "polynomial of degree two") into the mathematical vocabulary; so it's an influential work whether or not it started the tradition of "Towards...." (mathforum.org/library/drmath/view/57456.html, citing the OED).
    – Dan Bron
    Aug 6, 2014 at 17:43

Searching Worldcat.org for any title containing the phrase "towards a new", their records show books as early as 1715 containing the phrase (An essay towards a new method to show the longitude at sea), total two books that year; total of 3801 books from 1715 to 2014.

I take that to mean it's nothing new, and I agree with the comment that it's just a way of saying, "Here's my solution..." while not-saying, "...so shut up about it, already."

  • And before that. The philosopher George Berkeley published An essay towards a new theory of vision in 1709. Aug 6, 2014 at 16:20
  • Is there any way to pull out a time-series of works with this title, by year, so that we could look for inflection points (e.g. particularly influential papers)? Does WordCat have citation counts (if that question even makes sense)?
    – Dan Bron
    Aug 6, 2014 at 16:34

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