Saturday, May 09, 2020


Probably one of the most unprecedented things about COVID-19 has been the unprecedented use of the word unprecedented in the wall-to-wall coverage of the pandemic. Well, at least in my unprecedented experience!

The ever-helpful Merriam-Webster watch on trending words hasn’t clocked it yet, but that may be because there are plenty of other words tickling the fancy of Americans on the web. It may also be that it defines the word as ‘having no precedent’, which while being concise, is somewhat unhelpful.

Our own OED defines unprecedented as an adjective meaning ‘Never done or known before’. It also does not show the word in its trending searches, suggesting that the British too have no trouble knowing what the word means (maybe because the OED definition is a little more useful than Merriam-Webster’s?).

Words are not hard-boiled objects that hold an unchanging value or meaning. Sorry, all you English language purists out there, decimate does mean destroy as well as reduce by a tenth, and literally does now also act as an intensive form of figuratively. It’s just the way language is – words get co-opted to mean things for which the speaker has no other word to hand, and if that happens widely enough, words change meanings. It also explains (at least in part) why so many meanings seem to have more words than is strictly necessary. Think of how many synonyms there are for the word bad – give yourself half an hour and see how many you can come up with. Surely just one word would do?

Well, unprecedented (synonyms – unparalleled, extraordinary, record, first-time, exceptional, unmatched, etc.) is a word whose meaning is, perhaps unconsciously, drifting towards a more subjective nuance of the never known before part of the OED definition. Because the main way that these times are unprecedented is primarily in the experience to those who are writing. Very few of us (at least in the English-speaking West) have lived through a major epidemic, let alone a global pandemic before. Few of us have ever had to contend with being forced to self-isolate indoors for weeks, not even being able to see loved ones who are dying or attend funerals. In our, personal experience as human beings, this is unprecedented.

But you don’t have to go back far to find that our current circumstances are far from being without precedent. Even last year, the Democratic Republic of Congo was fighting a major Ebola epidemic that went largely unreported in the West. A few years earlier, an even more significant Ebola epidemic broke out in West Africa. Ebola is both highly transmissible and very deadly - far more so than COVID-19.

Much of Asia has dealt with novel coronavirus outbreaks such as MERS and SARS in the last two decades, and while not as transmissible as COVID-19, they are both far more deadly. Go back to the fifties and the UK was dealing with a major influenza epidemic, and of course to 1918/19 and the infamous (and misnamed and misremembered) Spanish Influenza, which killed more people in a few months than the First World War, and was spread globally because of the mass movement of fighting men and refugees.

Dig further back and there is a history of cholera epidemics across Europe and the Americas as our ancestors set about trading with and colonising parts of South Asia and Indochina where the bacterium Vibrio cholerae is endemic. Or further still to the outbreaks of bubonic plague and the still mysterious Black Death in the Middle Ages and Dark Ages. Take it back further to the Antonine and Cyprian Plagues that swept through the Roman Empire’s cities in the second and third centuries.

Epidemics have been with us since we built cities and decided to live cheek-by-jowl with our fellow human beings. Since we decided that we needed to travel the globe for trade, exploration and the novelty of seeing new places and people and conquering them for the heck of it. 

Urbanisation and travel have shaped epidemics and pandemics for thousands of years. As has politics – if you think the current debates about lockdown versus the economy are modern preoccupations, listen to this podcast.

The way we deal with epidemics has a long precedent as well. Quarantine (from the Italian quaranta giorni, rereferring to the forty-day exclusion on incoming ships to Venice during times of plague in the 14th century) has long been part of the way we deal with infectious diseases. During the Cyprian plagues people stayed in their homes or fled the cities to the countryside, leaving the poor and wretched to die with no care or help (apart from the early church who did stay and risked their own lives to care for the vulnerable and the sick). Nothing unprecedented here either.

Nevertheless, for most of us, COVID-19 is a crisis the like of which we have never experienced. For us, it is unprecedented. So, the subjective definition of the word is becoming normative, rather than the more objective nuance. It is a small shift in meaning, but also a profound one.

It shows why studying language and history is so importnat. It puts our apparently unprecedented experience into a bigger and wider context, shows us that such things have happened before, and indeed happen all the time, and that this too shall pass. Not without cost or pain. Not without inconvenience and disruption. But it will pass, and we will, for the most part, survive. Coming through pandemics is far from being without precedent.

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