Unprecedented?

Regular news readers may have noticed the growing usage of the word ‘unprecedented.’ A quick Google reveals pages upon pages of recent news articles featuring the word. I caught myself using it twice within a single paragraph the other day.

The feeling that we live in interesting times is not novel and the vividness of subjective experience probably means that each generation experiences their reality as exceptionally saturated and consequential.

This need to be weighed against the idea that modern life, the period following the industrial, scientific, and democratic revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, is fundamentally different from what came before. Life has accelerated and rapid change has become a norm, so perhaps unprecedented is not hyperbolic.

To look a little closer, I decided to search for the word with Google’s Ngram Viewer. For those not aware, it allows you to search for specific words or groups of words (Ngrams) within Google’s enormous corpus of digitized books, stretching back to 1800.

Unprecedented

A few descriptive points stand out:

  • Three peaks in 1807-1815, 1911-1919, and 1938-1946
    • Roughly corresponding to the Napoleonic Wars, World War 1, and World War Two.
  • A long-term decline between the 1830s and 1910,
    • Roughly corresponding with the end of the first industrial revolution, the duration of the second (there were several), and the peak of European colonialism.
  • A rapid incline between 1910 and 2003.
    • The ‘modern era’
  • A decline and plateau from 2004 to the present.
    • The post-crisis world? Aka my adulthood.

A few things stand out for me:

  • Economic crises do not seem to attract the same notice as wars. All the large spikes correspond with exceptionally violent conflict. The Great Depression, The Great Inflation of the 1970s, and the GFC are either plateaus or minor inclines. Alternately, no economic crisis has been as devastating as the Napoleonic, First, and Second World Wars (give thanks).
  • A plausible explanation for the incline between 1910 and 2003 could be rapid technological progress. But then why the decline in usage between 1830-1900, when railroads and telegraphs were revolutionizing communication and transport?
  • Despite historically high absolute levels of usage, I was surprised by the decline in usage since 2004, amidst the biggest economic crisis in a generation

All this speculation could be meaningless if I was only capturing changes in word popularity, so I also searched possible synonyms

In comparison with its synonyms, unprecedented has maintained its currency in usage.

Unfamiliar does not seem to have been used prior to the 1850s, but tracks a steady incline from its introduction until the 1990s when it explodes. The use of unfamiliar would support an explanation emphasizing the pace and novelty of technological progress since the industrial revolution, but why have both words dropped off in the 2010s?

And yet, a technological explanation needs to confront the fact there has been a steady decline in the usage of the word ‘new’ since the 1950s.

In all likelihood, variation in usage reflects subtle differences in meaning between synonyms or changes in writing style. While we can imagine a battle with an ‘unprecedented’ death toll, it is unlikely to be ‘unfamiliar.’

Still, there are some interesting anomalies, like why the GFC seemed to elicit a comparatively tepid response.