This blog post was first published on my Best Thinking blog 30th October 2013
How to use Internet date detection (ID) to find the originator of a term, phrase, idiom and its concept
There is a ‘knowledge belief’ in the literature is that the famous sociologist, Robert Merton, coined the phrase ‘self fulfilling prophecy’ in 1949. In this document, using Merton’s claim as an example, I will demonstrate how what I call Internet Date-Detection (ID) is done. Moreover, in the process we will be re-busting the Merton Myth. Because in this example I am going to show you how I discovered that Robert Merton never coined the phrase ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ and by so doing I will teach you how to veracity check such entrenched 'knowledge beliefs' for the genuine provenance of particular phrases, terms, idioms and their related concepts
Google is the best way to do this because it holds a total of over 30 million publications available to search – that’s the number of books held by Cambridge University and Harvard University libraries together. You are going to be searching through as many books in a matter seconds – checking every word in them. What you are about to find would be impossible to find using any other method, perhaps in a 100 lifetimes of searching, in every one of your waking hours.
Firstly, on the Google toolbar enter the term “self fulfilling prophecy” – please note that itmust be entered in speech-quotes, not single quotes. Because that way you are going to force Google look within the literature for only that exact phrase.
Next: Hit the return [enter] button on your keyboard to begin the search
Next: ignore everything Google turns up for that search. Don’t click on any of it. Instead, click the “more” option tab and select “books.”
Next: ignore all the books that come up.
Instead, click the “search tools” tab and select the “any time” option. From that, select the “custom range’ option.
Next: Within the “custom range” option enter 1700 into the “from” box. And then, in the “To” box, enter the year prior to the ‘knowledge belief’ claim. Se we are searching literally millions of publications between the first day of 1700 and the last day of 1948.
You should see that Google produces numerous books. This alone tells us that Merton never coined the phrase. So who did?
To find out, use the custom range option to see if it was coined between 1700 and 1800
We learn that it was not because Google tells us:
No results found for “self fulfilling prophecy”.
Results for self fulfilling prophecy (without quotes)
So let’s move on in time. Search between 1800 and 1850.
Be careful now because we are hacking Google here. Google has just slyly removed your double inverted commas. Be sure to add them back on to your search term "self fulfilling prophecy" yourself again before searching in the above date range.
Bingo! You got it to 1841:
If you click on the Frazer's Town and Country link provided by Google and you will see that both the phrase and the concept 'self fulfilling prophecy' date back at least as far as 1841. You found this out in the few minutes that Google allowed you to search through over 30 million scanned documents.
If there is an earlier date that this phrase appeared in print in the English language it has not yet been uploaded onto the internet. But one thing you now know to be 100 per cent true and that is that it’s a myth that the great sociologist Robert Merton coined the phrase for the concept.
That’s essentially how ID works. It’s a little clunky at the moment and, as you should always look inside the books that Google finds this way to verify that their date of publication corresponds with your custom search. You can also use the same technique on Google scholar to scan academic journal articles.
The Merton Myth
Myth – The famous sociologist Robert Merton coined the phrase ‘self fulfilling prophecy’ in 1949.
Fact – Merton’s own first published use of the phrase was actually 1948. But he never did coin it, because ‘self fulfilling prophecy’ can be found in the literature 107 years earlier. See: Fraser's magazine for town and country (1841) - Volume 23, Issues 133-138 - Page 130.
30th October 2013
 You can try experimenting with earlier dates but beware that, at the time of writing, Latin and earlier print faces are unreliable sources within Google.
 I did so for the above example, and the result was negative.