Hyperbole creeps into the use of ‘unprecedented’

Melissa Mohr

We are living in an age of the unprecedented. The Earth is undergoing “unprecedented global warming.” Rancor between Democrats and Republicans is “unprecedented.” The Google Ngram Viewer, which tracks the appearance and disappearance of words through time, shows our use of unprecedented rising at a steady rate.

This adjective came up recently when acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire testified before Congress that the whistleblower complaint against President Donald Trump was “unique and unprecedented.” Are all these things really unprecedented? What does this word actually mean today? 

Since Merriam-Webster defines unprecedented as “having no precedent,” let’s start there. A precedent is “an earlier occurrence of something similar,” or “something done or said that may serve as an example ... to justify a subsequent act of the same or an analogous kind,” as in a legal precedent. Unprecedented things thus have no earlier models. 

Our current period of global warming is not, strictly speaking, unprecedented, since the Earth has warmed rapidly many times before. At the end of the Permian, 250 million years ago, for example, the temperature rose by 8 degrees Celsius, much more than the 1.8 to 4 degrees we worry about today. Of course just because global warming has a precedent doesn’t mean that we should all relax – that 8 degree increase caused 90% of all life on Earth to become extinct.  

Most events and trends have precedents; there is little truly new under the sun. Unprecedented should thus be an uncommon word. The fact that usage is increasing suggests that people are employing it more expansively than the dictionary would allow. Today it tends to mean simply “this event is extraordinary and worth paying attention to,” not “this event has no historical parallels.”

In this, unprecedented is like unique and perfect, two other nongradable or absolute adjectives. Most adjectives are gradable and can be modified to indicate levels of the quality they denote. Hot is gradable, since we can have hot, hotter, and hottest. Boiling, in contrast, is nongradable. When water reaches 212 degrees Fahrenheit it is boiling; before then it is not. Likewise, in the grammarians’ ideal world, a thing is clearly unique or not, perfect or not, unprecedented or not.

Here, though, the grammarians’ ideal runs smack into the way people speak. Unique now means “unusual” as often as it refers to “the one and only.” I would love unprecedented to be used strictly as a nongradable adjective, and for writers to consider whether what they are talking about really doesn’t have a precedent. But I realize this will only happen in my perfect world, where perfect means “without flaw,” not “really good.”

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