Thursday, April 9, 2020

I Don't Think It Means What You Think It Means

How many times have you heard someone talk about how these times, with the Covid-19 pandemic, are "unprecedented?"  They keep using that word, but I don't think it means what they think it means.

The tailgate on Chumley has a 'boo-boo' - UNPRECENDENTED!
 Ok, so the Oxford dictionary says 'unprecedented' means 'never done or known before.'  So technically, we might be correct in saying this sort of damage to the pickup is unprecedented.  Well, actually it's not.  There have been a couple of other farm 'dings' because that is what happens with a farm truck.  By the way, I was not happy at all that this happened.  The how of it will be for another time.

Unprecedented stack of things in the Truck Barn...
 Ok, the stack of things to be cleaned or put away in the Truck Barn is not something that had never happened before.  BUT, I bet these specific items have never been stacked or placed EXACTLY like this before.  That must mean it is unprecedented.  Wow!  I can make anything sound impressive if I use that interpretation of the word.

Soup has never rolled around between this ladder and building before...
Part of what I am getting at is that we all have a tendency to co-opt words that are bigger or grander to try to make something sound more impressive.  'Unprecedented' is just such a word.  It's a longer word with more sylla-bobbles - so if you use it, you must be intelligent, right? 
The chickens have never... oh, wait.  They have.  Never mind.
The upshot of all of my belly-aching about a single word is that 'unprecedented' has been thrown around a good bit for the last four years for all kinds of things.  I notice that we seem willing to misuse 'unprecedented,' but we balk at the phrase 'without precedent.'  Folks... they are one and the same.

Case in point.  "These are unprecedented times with the Covid-19 pandemic, quarantines, shelter-in-place, etc."

But, this is not without precedent.  And many of the people that use 'unprecedented' for the current times will, in the same conversation, refer to the 1918 flu epidemic.  By default, they already know that there is/was a precedent.  Huh?  Perhaps we're using the word 'unprecedented' as an excuse for our failure not to look critically at prior pandemics and learn from them?  Hmmmmm.
This fence is falling down.  Unprecedented - for this fence.
So, here we are.  It is true.  The event of this particular fence falling down is unprecedented.  It has not fallen down before.  But, I am aware of many other fences that have fallen.   Most of the people currently alive in the United States have not experienced a pandemic, so it is unprecedented for them and their lives.  Soup the cat has never rolled around next to that ladder, so it is unprecedented for that specific arrangement.

But, these all miss the point that 'unprecedented' implies a certain enormity that is lost when we over-use it.  These certainly ARE exceptional times.  So, with respect to the pandemic, maybe I'll get over it.

But, the fence... unprecedented, I tell you!


  1. Thank you for a very delightful dalliance into the nitty-gritty of word usage -- I totally agree! :)


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