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I just suggested that this question, regardless of edits, might never be on-topic here, because "When did this phrase first appear in print" isn't really etymology, or even linguistics; it's history. How did a phrase evolve and mutate, yes; how did the use of one phrase come to be replaced by another, sure, but a simple question of "This phrase exists; its usage has a definite starting point; who and when was it?" seems like more a matter of historical research than linguistic.

But then we have this question, which seems quite warmly received, although it's essentially the same thing (even worse, since it's a folk aphorism, whereas the recent "blue alert" has some hope of being well documented). And moments ago, here's another.

I have no vested interest, and am personally curious about all those cases, but I wonder how others feel.

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    It should be said that one may disagree with your general suggestion that who-said-it-first questions are off-topic, and still agree with you that some of the specific examples of such questions that you refer to are off-topic (for some other reason, e.g. because they are about jokes that only very loosely depend on the features of English language as such).
    – jsw29
    Jan 30 at 21:28
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    For some reason, questions about etymology have always been an issue on ELU: english.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/7853/…
    – user 66974
    Jan 31 at 20:20

2 Answers 2

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According to my EL&U activity statistics, I have asked 15 non-wiki questions and answered 239 non-wiki questions tagged as "phrase-origin"—so obviously I find them both interesting and enjoyable to ask and answer. In fact, I think that first-published-occurrence questions and answers are among the most useful posts that appear on this site, for two reasons.

First, most general-reference resources (such as standard dictionaries) do not focus on the origins of phrases to the same extent that they do on the etymology of individual words and the first published occurrences of individual words. As a result, accounts of phrase origins tend to be less readily available and less thoroughly presented than accounts of individual word origins.

Second, the emergence of searchable online book and periodical databases over the past three decades has made it possible for amateurs (like the vast majority of participants at this site) to find earlier instances of specific phrases than the earliest ones that professional researchers (like those at OED) have reported. Consequently, to the extent that anyone cares what the earliest documented occurrence of a particular phrase is, amateurs can contribute to the body of current knowledge.

The goal of such research isn't to claim to have identified the very first time a phrase was ever used or the very first time it ever appeared in print. Rather, it is to provide documentation that the phrase was in use as of the date noted and, if possible, to clarify how it was being used in one or more particular instances of such early use.

The limitations of this type of research are obvious: it depends on written sources; it extends only to the publication databases that the researcher has access to; and it depends on the researcher's ability or good luck in anticipating antecedent wordings or spellings that might reveal the evolution of the phrase in question before it arrived at the exact form that a posted question asks about.

Since I don't subscribe to any pay-walled book or periodical databases (of which there are many online) and since I don't have access to academic resources that are limited to university researchers, I have no illusions that the relatively small pool of online database content available to me for free is likely to yield the earliest instances of a word or phrase that a more extensive search might produce. Nevertheless, I think that any incremental progress in documenting earlier occurrences of a phrase than were heretofore identified makes the effort worthwhile.

As the posted question above observes, phrase-origin questions are fundamentally questions of history. But to my mind, posing such inquiries under the category head "English Language & Usage" makes much more sense than posing them under the category head "History." Several first-rate dictionaries—including the OED, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, and A Dictionary of Americanisms—have embraced the notion of formulating and presenting their content "on historical principles." I take it that they see the "history" aspect of English as being both compatible and deeply intertwined with the "language and usage" aspects.

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  • You say that 'the goal of such research . . . is to provide documentation that the phrase was in use as of the date noted and, if possible, to clarify how it was being used in one or more particular instances of such early use'. I wholeheartedly agree that bringing such historical facts to the surface is highly valuable if it clarifies how and why the phrase emerged. But what if it doesn't? People usually ask these questions because there is something puzzling about the phrase; they are interested in the historical facts in so far as they solve the puzzle, not in themselves.
    – jsw29
    Jan 30 at 17:28
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I'm not saying I particularly like the question I edited: When and where the phrase "Blue alert" was originated? but I am pleased to see it has been reopened, especially if an earlier source can be found. On numerous occasions, users on EL&U have traced the origins of a word years earlier than chronicled by the OED (Oxford English Dictionary).

Etymology is about the history of the word; its origins, how its meaning and usage has changed over the years.

And how do we measure this development? Etymologists record the paths of words from its infancy to the present day, and this includes when these expressions first appeared in print. Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries) defines it as:

the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history

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    I agree that who-said-it-first questions are, in principle, well within the domain on this site. It is, however, understandable that one may be suspicious of them, as they assume that the word or the phrase has a definite origin, and that may not be the case. The answers to these questions typically consist of quotations of the earliest occurrences of the term that happen to be findable in electronic databases, which may or may not illuminate its actual origin.
    – jsw29
    Jan 29 at 16:58
  • That may satisfy some people, and it's the best that can be done. The rest is speculation. Lots of fun, but speculation nonetheless. Jan 30 at 16:28
  • There is a difference between a phrase like "blue alert" and a long (multi-sentence) joke such as the cockerel one which has no particular form of words. Etymologists will look at specific words and phrases, and particular ways of using language, but in general jokes, like myths and other stories, seem off-topic. The literature forum is more appropriate for most forms of story-telling, including stand-up comedy as well as written humour. I don't think anybody would agree that asking about mythical or literary motifs (global floods or microwaved babies), would be on topic at ELU.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 1 at 14:10

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