Why We Need to Stop Overusing the Word Unprecedented in 2020

Talking about the word of the year.

Kristy Lynn
Nov 5, 2020 · 5 min read
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Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

My sparkling new 2020 planner arrived shortly before the end of 2019. It was an exciting day. I looked through the blank sheets that marked off an entire year. It felt full of possibility and potential. I was sure this was going to be the start of good things.

Do you remember what your thoughts were in December 2019? If you’re anything like me — and lots of people in my social media circles — you saw the coming decade as a sign of hope. 2020: The time to move forward. Onward and upward to healthier, better ways of living with each other and our planet.

What a bunch of horsesh*t that was, huh?

There are the obvious reasons I say that: 200,000+ dead in the U.S., continued police brutality, continued systemic and overt racism, millions of jobs lost, a raging global pandemic, and the U.S. teetering on the brink of social and economic collapse.

But there’s another very concrete way I know that my 2019 dreams for 2020 glitters and rainbows were horse dung. It all comes down to one word. And I have heard this one word repeated over and over again this year.

I’ve heard it from almost every newscaster on almost every news channel. I’ve read it in headlines on an almost daily basis. This is a word I never gave much thought to before 2020. A word that, truth be told, I didn’t know the full meaning of before writing this article. Although, I didn’t need to know the dictionary definition — because I understood its meaning enough through context.

That word, of course, is unprecedented.

So, let’s dive into this word — “unprecedented” — and see why it may come to be 2020’s word of the year.

Unprecedented: Definition

To get on the same page about what this word means, I’ll list a couple of the standard dictionary definitions below.

Dictionary.com

without previous instance; never before known or experienced; unexampled or unparalleled

Merriam-Webster

having no precedent : NOVEL, UNEXAMPLED

Cambridge Dictionary

never having happened or existed in the past

Headlines Using the Word ‘Unprecedented’ for October 27, 2020

I’ll give you a list of real articles below, just so you understand the frequency with which this word is being used. A quick search on Google News for October 27th headlines using the word ‘unprecedented’ drums up the following. Note: these were just the headlines on the first page of Google News. There were subsequent pages with even more headlines.

“Amy Coney Barrett joins the Supreme Court in unprecedented times” CNN.com

“Biden slams ‘rushed and unprecedented’ Amy Coney Barrett confirmation” New York Post

“CNN, MSNBC made unprecedented decision to skip historic Amy Coney Barrett vote” Fox News

“6 crucial things we just learned about the unprecedented 2020 November Masters” Golf.com

“This election day will be an unprecedented one. Here’s how The Times is covering it” Yahoo News

“A Strange Real Estate Buzz in an Unprecedented Economic Season” Realtor.com

“‘An Unprecedented Man:’ Medal of Honor Recipient Ron Shurer Laid to Rest at Arlington” Yahoo News/Military.com

“Maine poll workers ‘tense’ as Election Day looms, along with unprecedented flood of absentee ballots” Bangor Daily News

That’s a Whole Lot of Unprecedented!

The list above shows the word unprecedented being used to describe everything from a Supreme Court nomination to Election Day to a news network’s decision to real estate economics to an army veteran's death to… a golf tournament?

What’s really going on here? They can’t all be unprecedented — can they?

I understand why we began using this word to describe 2020. A lot is happening, and most of it’s pretty terrible. Lots of unrest, violence, political sparring, and people struggling. I think we got to this place of over-using the word unprecedented because of the lockdowns. If my memory serves me correctly, I first recall hearing it when COVID-19 started messing with our lives just 7 short months ago.

The strange thing about this word is, per the definition, it is simply describing something that has never happened before but… isn’t that true of everything? I mean, every moment of our existence is a new moment. Right? So, theoretically, couldn’t every moment be ‘unprecedented’ or “never before known or experienced”?

Regardless, this word is losing its power and impact. Its luster is fading from excessive use and now it’s being demoted, from describing global pandemic issues to describing golf tournaments.

It’s as if everyone using it is trying to act like the person/place/thing/event they are describing is the deepest, most meaningful part of current life. All I’m saying is this: while we are living in extremely fragile, chaotic, rough times, I am not sure that they are actually any more unprecedented in that way than previous times.

I mean, the 1918 flu killed 50 million people worldwide. Let’s pray that COVID is never going to reach that, but I’m just saying — that’s a ton of people who died from a virus. That must have been tragic, chaotic times.

Then there was World War II which, to me, is almost impossible to wrap my mind around a global tragedy of that magnitude. “World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, causing 70 to 85 million fatalities, with more civilians than military personnel killed.” That’s unprecedented.

What Are We Really Trying to Say?

Now, when I hear this word being used, I get what the person using it is trying to say. They want me to understand that something like this is outside of the 21st-century norm. But, I think that maybe we should have preserved this word for the shock value it’s supposed to deliver.

Yes, a lot is happening this year that’s not “supposed” to happen. It goes against our sedated 1990s/early 2000s life template. And yes, we have a terrible orange monster, borderline fascist, for a president. That does feel a bit unprecedented. But the word has almost become trendy. It doesn’t quite feel the same when it’s used to describe anything slightly outside the perceived ordinary. I think it’s important to be realistic about how difficult these times are in our lives, while also remembering that people who have lived before us lived through a lot of horrible times too. Yet, I wonder, did they think it was unprecedented? Or was it just… life?

What Is Really Unprecedented in 2020?

My take on it? If there is anything that we should be calling unprecedented in 2020, it’s the fact that 7.8 billion people are basically committing slow mass suicide. The majority of us, especially those in power, continue to deny the urgent science of climate change. We continue to pollute and kill a planet every day and refuse to believe that we depend on the health of that same planet for our daily existence. Meanwhile, the Earth retaliates, and the scientists are ignored.

Now that, my friends, is f*cking unprecedented.

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Kristy Lynn

Written by

A lover of stories, trees, dancing & self-reflection. Trained in somatic counseling psychology. Balancing optimism & reality. Connect: earthlovers.substack.com

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