How to destroy a word

Peter Frank Thompson
4 min readJun 9, 2020
A view that helps one think

It’s unprecedented the amount of times the word “unprecedented” has been used in the last six months. Even once-august institutions such as the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) now use “unprecedented” as often as many people punctuate their sentences with “like” … like they can think of no other words that suggest drama, uncertainty and fear.

It used to be a good word — “unprecedented”but its unprecedented overuse has worn it out.

Words matter. No matter what you do with them or which ones you use, they cannot not have an effect on the reader or listener. When we take a perfectly serviceable word like … well “like” … and use it to replace commas, full stops, or other useful conjunctions or comparatives, it just becomes a catalyst for murderous contemplations.

“Unprecedented” no longer has the effect it should for two reasons.

One, with respect to the COVID-19 event (guess which noun I just did not use, by the way), it’s not true. There are some people still alive who were there for the Spanish flu pandemic; and even if you weren’t there, you surely have heard of it by now. So COVID-19 is not “unprecedented” as far as pandemics go.

Two, as already suggested, “unprecedented” has been appallingly overused. Overuse any word enough and you rob it of its power. Well, to be more accurate, you give it a different power: to incite passionate rage at pointless, ongoing hyperbole; or, to simply switch off as you do when some advertisement tells you of “fantastic” savings. You might end up having the same response as when you last heard some CEO blathering about “vital initiatives for achieving dynamic outcomes going forward”.

“Crisis” is the other favourite of the moment. Apparently we don’t have a manageable, albeit serious, pandemic — it’s a “COVID-19 crisis”.

A disclaimer is necessary here: the SARS-CoV-2 virus does need to be taken seriously and one ought not be cavalier about it. Care and physical distancing for those at risk is most certainly warranted.

But the continuing overuse of “crisis” can have effects such as (or should I say “like”?) just switching off as people eventually do with many gruesome road safety advertisements, through to suspecting that there is a sociopolitical agenda centred on maintaining a state of manufactured fear in the population. Now there’s some fodder for the conspiracy theorists.

Words cannot not have an effect.

Like “social distancing”. Whoever thought of that was not thinking about the unconscious psychological effect of asking people to socially distance themselves for months. It’s hard on the extroverts for a start: there are only so many conversations you can have with yourself in isolation before you begin suspecting your grip on your sanity. Then there are those whose resilience and sense of safety — often in aged care facilities — is woven from the fabric of their communion with their families and dearest friends; from their social connection even if it has to be at a physical distance.

The lack of consciousness that chose “social” distancing instead of plain, simple “physical” distancing is not unprecedented, sadly.

If we can go to the supermarket and safely maintain a physical distance of more than 1.5 metres; surely we can socially connect — in person — as long as we maintain that safe distance, are healthy, and don’t share food or eating utensils (or anything more intimate for that matter). It is what many are doing — safely — anyway. But others — you might have noticed — walk past you with glances of severe suspicion as if their eyes projected a surveyor’s laser beam to determine if you have violated the physical distance guideline by as much as a nanometre. Safe, physical distancing should not entail social disconnection, fear, or even hatred as some have experienced.

Words have effects.

It is easy just to let words flow, and there are times when that it is appropriate. Yet there are other times — unprecedented or not — that of their nature require special attention to the effect our words have on others. This is the special attention that is deeply considered — and that can often require only a moment of thought — and which is inspired by a desire to enrich, inform, guide, and nurture. To create a society that is healthy, respectful, and enabling.

It’s not the attention of the so-called spin doctors, by the way. Have you noticed just how often you have considered some politician’s or company representative’s words to be the insulting attempts to spin your mind to their impoverished way of thinking? The spinners of that sort of word usage are more like the disease than doctors. Perhaps we could call it a crisis of integrity in the use of language.

We have such a rich language. Let’s select from it thoughtfully, and craft language that awakens and enriches minds.

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