Throughout history, undergraduates have peppered the opening sentences of their term papers with a phrase. That phrase, of course, is ‘throughout history’. And no matter how much we (college instructors) may tell them that it is too vague and general to possibly be useful in almost any paper, we run into it again and again. But where did it come from?
A quick search on Google Ngram Viewer reveals that not only has throughout history not been used throughout history, but it is of relatively recent origin, and increasing rapidly:
The first instance I’ve been able to track down of these two words in order is from 1761, in Henry Brooke’s The Tryal and Cause of the Roman Catholics (1761: 104):
Many and various, throughout History, have been the Mischiefs, the Miseries, the inexpressible Calamities, that attended the King-deposing and King-killing Doctrine.
After that, we get them in quick succession, with new instances in 1764, 1767, 1769, and 1774 (you can see the little bump on the left of the Ngram). Thereafter it remains in rare but steady use for nearly a century, and then really starts to take off through the 20th century. One wonders (though I wouldn’t want to make too much of it) whether it’s a product of Enlightenment thinking or the broader historical perspectives of Enlightenment and modernist thought. Opinions on the course of history abound in 20th century thought, of course.
And, although Ngram viewer gets really weird after 2000, so I can’t extrapolate the curve, I am sad to say that even the most esteemed authors use it in recent works:
This study is a comparative analysis of all numerical notation systems known to have existed throughout history – approximately one hundred distinct systems, most of which can be grouped into eight distinct subgroups. (Chrisomalis 2010: 3)
Ahem. Well, I can defend my use in that I really am talking about all the numerical notation systems used throughout 5000 years of written history, right? I suppose the broader point is that this phrase is at least ten times more common now than it was 100 years ago, and we should hardly be surprised, then, that our students pick it up. After all, they have to get it somewhere, don’t they?