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There are these radio shows where people can call in and ask questions about language. The language experts (researchers I assume) then often answer "The first occurrence of that word was in 1922 by John Doe in a newspaper article, where it was used to describe X. In 1944 it seems like it took on a different meaning. ".

How do the experts know or find these answers?

That's a very broad question, so let me expand on my thoughts.

Of course there are some relatively common questions about interesting words that get asked again and again. Even I start to remember a lot of those. But no matter how smart the experts are they will also receive questions about words that they simply don't know the etymology of.

Do they have a kind of lexicon they look up in? And even if there is an etymological lexicon with a proper explanation for each word, that will not cover every possible word. So how do the experts find an answer when the word is not in their etymology lexicons?

On one hand I imagine that there are databases somewhere on the national libraries or at some universities with digitized versions of old books and newspapers. But on the other hand, I know that we are very far from having digitized all of it.

Also, I don't know what it takes to get access to such databases? Can an expert on a radio show get the libraries to help him look up some word? And then when he says that the first mention was in 1922, actually that means the first mention was in 1922 among the media that was digitized; and not necessarily the first mention at all in writing.

Also, these radio shows existed before we had any significant database of digitized books and newspapers. So how did they do it 30 years ago?

  • Microfiche :) ? There’s probably something to the looking, and looking again, that justifies the re in research. – Lawrence May 24 at 4:44
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    They probably look in the OED, and let their experts do the real research. – Jim May 24 at 5:27
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    They don’t. What they find is the earliest known use in writing. – Xanne May 24 at 7:57
  • The careful version of your interesting question is: “What is the earliest KNOWN use of word X?”. Historically, not all writing survives. So the answer now begins to be international database networks. Before that, it is the great dictionaries, like OED and Webster. How have they been complied? Human international networks of scholarship. In the world there are scholars in every subject in every known period of every subject. Compilers of great dictionaries need contact with the network of universities, and lists of established expertise. They consult them. It’s the best we can do. – Tuffy May 24 at 8:07
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I answered a similar question on Linguistics SE, which I will plagiarize in part here:

How etymological research is done has varied through time. In the case of the "New English Dictionary" (the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary), work started on it in 1857. Then:

[I]n January 1859, the Society issued their 'Proposal for the publication of a New English Dictionary,' in which the characteristics of the proposed work were explained, and an appeal made to the English and American public to assist in collecting the raw materials for the work, these materials consisting of quotations illustrating the use of English words by all writers of all ages and in all senses, each quotation being made on a uniform plan on a half-sheet of notepaper, that they might in due course be arranged and classified alphabetically and by meanings. This Appeal met with a generous response: some hundreds of volunteers began to read books, make quotations, and send in their slips to 'sub-editors,' who volunteered each to take charge of a letter or part of one, and by whom the slips were in tum further arranged, classified, and to some extent used as the basis of definitions and skeleton schemes of the meanings of words in preparation for the Dictionary.
An Appeal to the English-Speaking and English-Reading Public to Read Books and Make Extracts for The Philological Society's New English Dictionary

One significant contributor to the early OED worth mentioning is William Chester Minor (1834 – 1920). He was insane, but he was also good at doing etymological research. His story, graphic in some parts, can be found here:

What made him so good, so prolific, was his method: Instead of copying quotations willy-nilly, he’d flip through his library and make a word list for each individual book, indexing the location of nearly every word he saw. These catalogues effectively transformed Minor into a living, breathing search engine. He simply had to reach out to the Oxford editors and ask: So, what words do you need help with?

The "Reading Programme" is still used by the OED, although the methodology is different. The books are still read all the same but here's what happens next according to a freelance researcher for the OED:

I then consult OED Online to determine whether the word or phrase is in the Dictionary: if it is not, I submit it as a ‘not-in’, and if it is, I decide whether its form or context is important enough to warrant its submission. If it does qualify, I enter the information into tagged fields in an electronic file that has been set up in a standard format. When I have finished the reading, I submit the file to Oxford or New York, where the records are incorporated into OED‘s working database for consideration by the editors, along with thousands of paper citation slips, as they proceed through the current revision. Yes, some of my finds are still submitted as paper slips—a reminder of OED‘s long heritage—but, electronic or paper, I can hardly imagine a better job.

The quotations were collected in a machine readable format for the first time in 1989. The 1990 UK Reading Programme captured material electronically. (Note that the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary came out in 1989.)

In addition to this, the OED now utilizes several online databases of texts, such as Early English Books Online, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, and some newspaper databases.

I have access (for now) to several of these paywalled databases through my college.

If you do your own research with databases (many people use the free Google Books), it's often easy to find antedatings for pages that haven't been updated for the third edition of the OED. Updates to the OED3 started in 2000 and continue to this day: it's a huge dictionary and updating takes time.

See also:

  • Fantastic answer :) However, I don't understand the last part with Google Books, "beating pages" and OED3. Could you explain please? – Mads Skjern May 24 at 15:23
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    @MadsSkjern what I mean by that is that it’s easy to find something earlier than what the OED has if the page hasn’t been updated. – Laurel May 24 at 15:24
  • Even as an editor of American English, I found the line "it's often easy to beat pages that haven't been updated for the third edition of the OED" to be confusing. In my opinion, if you edited that line in your answer, it would make an already good answer excellent. – Mark Hubbard May 29 at 13:52
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The original, most authoritative source on these in pre-digital times was the Oxford English Dictionary. And they assembled all of their references manually, although they can be said to have invented crowdsourcing, as people from all over the world.contributed.

The OED is still an amazing source. Today, though, companies like Google and efforts like Project Gutenberg are making great efforts to digitize everything we have, and then it's only a 'grep' command away. Like Tuffy said, a good deal of everything we ever wrote is lost, though, and having studied ancient Greek myself, it's tragic. We've lost countless works of some of authors we, and even everyone at the time, knew were masterpieces. Try searching for Sappho, so many fragments. Whole plays by Euripides, gone.

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