Google have released something called the “Books Ngram Viewer” which lets you investigate the frequency of lexical items over time (in several languages).
As an example, here is the graph it produces for telegraph (red), telephone (blue) and email (green):
As you would expect, ‘telephone’ overtakes ‘telegraph’ shortly before 1920, and ‘email’ comes from nowhere around 1990 and quickly becomes a frequent word.
What really surprised me here, though, was the usage of ‘email’ in the mid-19th century. It obviously must have had a very different meaning back then, but what was it? The dictionaries I have at hand here do not reveal anything useful.
The Books Ngram Viewer lets you view the actual citations, and here are a few of them:
email sums paid by some of the Presbyteries
church has been email compared with that of the females
given as a defence against the email bird
with four longitudinal crimson stripes corresponding to the angles of the email, lozenge-shaped apertures
the email traders
A email brush is the best for the purpose of applying it
Fortunately, you don’t have to trust Google’s OCR’ed version, and if you open up the actual scanned pages containing these quotes, all the usages of ‘email’ turn out to be instances of the word small.
With the caveat that you have to watch out for OCR errors (especially in older texts), the Ngram Viewer is a great tool for linguists and lexicographers, and it’s great that Google have made it available to all of us.