I was looking up some things in the British National Corpus, and was trying to find the earliest occurrence of a word pattern. Unfortunately I couldn't find any way of seeing publication dates of the sources given.

Is this something that is possible on their website? I'd like to be able to see dates, and also sort by them.

This is an XY problem, so if anyone knows of a way to find the earliest occurrence of a given phrase that doesn't use the BNC, I'd be glad to hear.

  • 1
    There's no guarantee that it's truly the earliest, but you can sort Google Books results by date. Sep 8, 2020 at 8:55
  • What is an 'XY problem'?
    – Mitch
    Sep 8, 2020 at 14:15
  • Googling, it seems an earlier website for BNC did allow sorting by date of occurrence, but exploring the current website I can't find anything (but that doesn't mean it isn't there somewhere hidden).
    – Mitch
    Sep 8, 2020 at 14:15
  • @Mitch an XY problem is when I want to solve X, and try by doing Y, only to find out I don't know how to do Y either. I ask how to solve Y, when I really want to solve X (for which there may be a better way than doing Y). Does that make sense? Sep 8, 2020 at 14:48
  • @marcellothearcane Everything about that makes sense except for using X and Y as an acronym. Is that a well-known acronym for that situation?
    – Mitch
    Sep 8, 2020 at 15:12
  • It is indeed, at least in the developer realm - xyproblem.info // meta.stackoverflow.com/search?q=xy+problem Sep 8, 2020 at 15:58
  • @marcellothearcane Got it. The mental phenomenon, for any kind of design, must be recognized as common, but for some reason I had never noticed that it had been given a label. Sort of similar situation to 'sea lioning' ... I can never remember the name.
    – Mitch
    Sep 9, 2020 at 22:02

1 Answer 1


The answer seems to be no, you can’t sort by date in the BNC. If anyone knows otherwise, then I’d be interested!

You might get a date for a specific hit by clicking on it though this may end up being “(1985-1994)” which is useless for any purpose I can think of. When that happens I try to see if Google can find the context by searching for part of the excerpt in double quotes, though this is hit and miss.

What I can tell you is that other corpora on the site do have a way to group by date. You just go to the chart tab and “see frequency by section” and your results will be broken down by into time frames. (Sometimes it’s not granular enough though so you would have to search through a bunch of hits to find the earliest, but it’s there.)

picture of search page on chart tab

Only some of the corpora will do this, such as COCA, COHA, and Hansard. Other times, as is the case with the BNC, the chart will use some other metric, such as spoken vs academic vs other types of English.

In fact I researched for this etymology answer by searching EEBO via english-corpora.org. In the case of EEBO, there is another website that I was using before that I liked better for a number of reasons, but you can’t use it without a subscription. (Nowadays I usually use the free, no account needed UMich EEBO search, which allows you to sort by date except when there are too many results.) Some of the other corpora may also have other ways to access them, though I don’t know if any.

  • "but you can’t use it without a subscription" - ay, there's the rub... I'm cheap! Sep 10, 2020 at 5:45
  • Either way, wasn't the Question about getting dates, not sorting on them? Apr 3 at 19:37
  • @RobbieGoodwin "I'd like to be able to see dates, and also sort by them."
    – Laurel Mod
    Apr 3 at 19:39
  • @Laurel Thanks and I'm sorry I missed that. Apr 3 at 21:31

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