Unprecedented sees unprecedented use

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The word unprecedented shows up over 30,000 times on Google News. The word Obama? Almost 29,000 times. Merkel gives 23,000 results, Azerbaijan 4,000+, Iran a mere 13,000. There's nothing wrong with frequent use, but the word unprecedented seems to be a favourite expression to use at the moment.

The meaning of the word unprecedented is very easy: without precedent, meaning that there is no previous example to compare to whatever it is you are emphasizing. The Apollo program to take humanity to the moon for the first time: unprecedented. Atomic bomb: unprecedented. Let's take a look at the top few results from Google News to see if what is being called unprecedented is actually unprecedented.

New drugs against melanoma show modest, unprecedented progress -- kind of iffy. Maybe the progress here actually is unprecedented (health is not my specialty), but something about the combination of unprecedented and modest leaves me uneasy.

Two mines subject to unprecedented enforcement action for violations -- maybe in the most limited scope, where only these two mines haven't seen their rules enforced like this. Still, enforcing rules against health and safety violations is hardly new.

Some hotel has an unprecedented branded luxury spa -- this one is just wrong.

Starwood Hotels Relocates Global Headquarters to China for Unprecedented Month-Long Managerial Endeavor -- nope. A managerial endeavor is hardly without precedent. Unless as above we are talking about the smallest scope possible. But then we would have to start using the word for just about everything: I waited an unprecedented amount of time for my coffee (5 minutes, a new record), my youngest son has an unprecedented amount of money in his account ($50, before he only had $40 tops).

Missouri river could rise to unprecedented levels -- this one is correct! If the river rises to a level never before recorded, it's unprecedented. The scope (a large river affecting thousands to millions) also matches the selection of such a word.

Springfield tornado not unprecedented in Massachusetts - also very good.

From space, unprecedented views of coastlines -- article is about a new technology so okay, this one is fine. I would prefer "clearest yet", "most detailed ever" but unprecedented isn't too bad.

Shaq's man-child legacy leaves unprecedented footsteps in NBA -- just a piece on Shaquille O'Neal from childhood to now, doesn't really say exactly what is unprecedented.

A drug seizure in The Gambia is unprecedented - perhaps it is, not really sure.

An athlete with an unprecedented eight titles. Okay. I would prefer record holder or something along those lines; unprecedented doesn't really add anything here.

So is unprecedented actually being used more now or is this just imagination? Google Trends supports the former assertion. See what happens when it is compared to another term with similar traffic like Armenia:

The news reference volume at the bottom is where we really see it, as the word unprecedented suddenly begins to take off as a buzzword in 2008, maintaining this level.

Interestingly (and a search just now has reminded me of this), there is clear blame to be laid for this. It goes all the way to the top, and began right around the presidential election too. Keep an eye on the word's usage over the next decade (a second term would mean lots of Barack Obama coverage until at least late 2016) to see if its unprecedented usage survives his presidency.


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