Q: It seems that the phrase “lived experience” originated in research, but like so many terms that are understood in a particular context it has escaped into the wild, where it has much the same meaning as “experience.” Any thoughts?
A: The term “lived experience” has been used since at least the late 19th century to mean an experience lived through as opposed to one learned about secondhand.
As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the adjective “lived” can be used to describe “life, an experience, etc.: that has been lived or passed through.” The dictionary’s first citation, with “lived” modifying “life,” is from a theological treatise:
“It is the actual lived life, and the actual died death of Jesus which makes the moral and mathetic [learning] life so instinct with converting power” (from The Antiquity of the Gospels Asserted on Philological Grounds, 1845, by Orlando T. Dobbin).
The earliest example we’ve seen for “lived experience” is from a late 19th-century feminist magazine in Australia. A report on a paper read at a feminist meeting cites the various issues facing women and says, “all these subjects are open to discussion, suggestion and action, upon the ground of lived experience” (The Dawn, Sydney, July 1, 1889).
In the 20th century, “lived experience” took on a related sense in philosophy, psychology, sociology, and so on: one’s perception of events firsthand rather than through representations by other people. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a book about the French philosopher Henri Bergson:
“ ‘Tensional’ experience is the term used in this essay to describe the intermingling of lived experience and of the experience which is of increasing practical use the more superficial it becomes” (The Ethical Implications of Bergson’s Philosophy, 1914, by Una Bernard Sait).
This more recent OED example, which we’ve expanded, is from a book about interracial friendship and communication among adolescents:
“direct questioning regarding racial attitudes is very difficult where young people are involved, for they are at an age when they are only beginning to establish the relationship between their lived experience and social ‘opinion’ and ‘knowledge’ about it” (White Talk Black Talk, 1986, by Roger Hewitt).
A search with Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books, indicates that the use of “lived experience” has increased sharply in recent decades—in both its original sense and the newer one, which is common in phenomenology (the study of how human beings perceive phenomena).
However, none of the ten standard dictionaries we regularly consult include “lived experience,” perhaps because the noun “experience” by itself can have much the same meaning in general usage.
American Heritage’s “experience” entry, for example, says the noun may mean, among other things, an “event or a series of events participated in or lived through.”