The precedented history of ‘unprecedented times’

As Zoom went from brand to verb, and euphemisms for “pandemic” entered our vocabularies, our language expanded to include neologisms and new cliches to describe the rapidly changing world around us.

If you’ve read an email, a news article, or even had a conversation with anyone in the last two years, you’ve likely come into contact with the phrase “unprecedented times”.

As Zoom went from brand to verb, and euphemisms for “pandemic” entered our vocabularies, our language expanded to include neologisms and new cliches to describe the rapidly changing world around us. Many aspects of our times aren’t as unprecedented as they seem, but the most precedented one may be the use of the phrase “unprecedented times”.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, data from Google Trends suggests that searches for the phrase peaked during the period of March to April 2020. This data is the translation of search results into relative interest values from 0 to 100 (the peak popularity of the term) to represent the frequency of searches within the set region and time period. This makes sense when a Google Search for “unprecedented times” (refined by the date range of 29 March 2020 to -26 April 2020, which is the most popular period of search in Australia), produces around four and a half million results. Many of these results, even within the early months of the pandemic, label these phrases as cliches that should be avoided. 

Cliches are often considered to be lazy or ineffective forms of expression. However, as argued in Armanda Ramona Stroia’s journal article ‘Journalistic clichés under the conceptual “umbrella” of isotopies’, cliches can provide a sense of familiarity in complex and overpopulated media environments. These terms can then serve as connections within a shared social language. 

Such terms can also concisely describe the confusion of the last two years with impressive capacity for the receiver to understand what the communicator is talking about without really saying it. Nonetheless, the repeated use of these phrases has reduced their meaning to little more than filler for emails or newsletters. When faced with constant uncertainty, confusion, and what often feels indescribable, phrases like “unprecedented times” or “the new normal” can become simple blanket statements to describe (and perhaps obscure) vast complexity.

For a phrase that feels paradigmatic, a search in Google’s Ngram viewer shows that it has appeared in English books over at least the last two hundred years. Whilst the phrase does not seem to appear in the Google Books catalogue until the early 1800s, it notably peaks near 1827, 1917, 1941 and 2009, periods associated with the cholera pandemic, the World Wars, the Global Financial Crisis and swine flu. Whilst this phrase has low overall frequency, its higher usage during these times seems to coincide with the occurrence of significant historical events, albeit with minor delays when accounting for the publishing process. 

As we continue to encounter new uncertainties and look for new terms to describe them, perhaps we should search within our current cliches for the messages that they attempt to communicate. It seems like if we keep waiting for “precedented” times, they might never come. We might as well adjust.