Historical collections that include everything ever written in a dozen American and British newspapers since they started are now available electronically. Donald MacQueen from Uppsala University, Sweden, has carried out the first comprehensive study that makes use of this resource in order to track changes in language usage, a method that makes it possible to attain an entirely new degree of precision in dating.

The gigantic newspaper archives contain news and feature articles as well as editorials and commercial and classified advertisements. Together they comprise tens of billions of words. In his dissertation in English linguistics, Donald MacQueen has examined the word million in English, especially how language usage shifted from the previously nearly totally dominant “five millions of inhabitants” to today’s “five million inhabitants.” With the help of these electronic collections of texts that only recently became available, he has succeeded in pinning down when and where the modern expression began to take over.

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