The overuse of “unprecedented”

 In Modern English, Vocabulary Words

If you’ve been following anything that’s happened in the last six months then you know that in addition to the rise of COVID-19, travel restrictions, social distancing and the use of masks, the word “unprecedented” also seen a rise in use, to describe it all.

We live in unprecedented times.

The surge in cases is unprecedented.

The extent of travel restrictions is unprecedented.

Source: Google Trends
Notes: relative interest in use of word in USA. 100 represents peak popularity and interest.

From news clips to radio broadcasts to the regular conversations on web calls, the word has been used so frequently that some are now saying it’s overused. In fact the above graphic from Google Trends shows the dramatic increase in the use of the word since the start of the pandemic. But what does it mean? Is it being used correctly? And more importantly how do you say it?

What does it mean?

The Cambridge dictionary describes the word as “never having happened or existed in the past”. The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes it as “not known or experienced before.” An easier way to understand it is to consider synonyms, words that mean exactly the same thing. So, synonyms for ‘unprecedented’ include for example words like, ‘new’, ‘uncommon’, ‘abnormal’ or ‘unheard-of’.

How do you say it?

Now that we have a better grasp of its meaning, the more important part is learning how to say it. It’s a long word. If you have to sound it out then it reads as follows: “uhn-preh-suh-den-tuhd”. Here’s a short sound clip to help you get it right.


So, is it being used correctly?

Well, yes and no. Yes because in some respects the events of the last 6 months are ‘new’ and ‘abnormal’ for people living in this half of the century. Never has a virus spread so quickly and never in modern history has there been such worldwide restrictions on movement and travel. There has also never been this kind of global coordinated response. But No because, as some medical experts point out, the notion of a virus outbreak is in fact not ‘uncommon’ nor ‘unheard-of’ – it is not unprecedented. There was the 19th Century outbreak more commonly known as Spanish Flu and then just in the last two decades we’ve had Ebola, SARS and MERS.

All that said, whether or not you are sick of hearing the word, whether or not you can say it properly or whether or not you think it is unprecedented, it’s important that we do our best to protect ourselves and those we love.


If you liked this little bit about the word unprecedented click here for more interesting and curious things about the English Language.

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