Words by
Kirsten Nagel

Wordsmith: Unprecedented

Wordsmith is where Brand Manager Kirsten luxuriates in language - the new, the beautiful and the overused. In today’s installment, she investigates the recent unprecedented use of the word, ‘Unprecedented.’

Club Yu Mei Wordsmith

Unprecedented

/ʌnˈprɛsɪdɛntɪd/

adjective • adjective: unprecedented

1

Never done or known before
"the government took the unprecedented step of releasing 
confidential correspondence"

2

Without previous instance

3

Unexampled or unparalleled

4

An overused catchall in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic
“I hope you’re well in these unprecedented times”

While it’s acknowledged that cancel culture is unproductive at best and irreparably damaging at worst, I propose a worldwide cancellation of the word ‘unprecedented.’ It simply has to go. Once the domain of climate change catastrophe, the term has become synonymous with watery email pleasantries and blanket corporate statements unbefitting of a once-in-a-century event. Though no one is questioning the validity of ‘unprecedented’ to describe what is, frankly, an unprecedented series of events, its flippant overuse is diluting the gravity of our collective experience.

Semantically speaking, we’ve adopted wartime language to make sense of the profound disruption to our lives caused by the pandemic. Essential workers and healthcare professionals are referred to as ‘frontline’ staff, rations were imposed on certain supermarket goods and virus casualties are still being reported numerically as ‘incalculable losses.’ Overseas, military-style temporary hospitals and morgues have been erected, while politicians speak of the ‘fight’ of our generation. This type of language would be unprecedented, if not for the fact that we’re returning to it.

This raises an obvious question: can anything be deemed truly ‘unprecedented’ anymore? The current situation requires an extensive vocabulary, not a single, overused word. The pandemic is terrifying, unifying, the catalyst of profound changes. And yes, it is admittedly unprecedented. Just don’t say it.

Here, we propose some synonyms to ‘unprecedented’:
Anomalous; Remarkable; Unstunning; Extraordinary (but not the good kind); Freakish; Unique; Unknown; Pioneering.

An unprecedentedly busy day on Wellington’s Oriental Bay, sans physical distancing, hand sanitiser or single-use masks. Image from the Te Papa Collection

Flailing through the unprecedented year that is 2020. Image by Ch’lita Collins featuring Ash Williams, with styling by Seb Hunt and Dylan Richards