Unprecedented is a term used to describe a situation never experienced before. It might even be the word of the year.
Because much like the COVID-19 pandemic that brought it about into the everyday lexicon, it’s been everywhere since March. Emails, advertisements, speeches and stories use it on the daily. In some ways, it's become shorthand for "we don’t know what to do." We get it. It completely makes sense why people are using unprecedented this way.
Even knowing all of that, it’s time to extract it from our vocabulary.
We’ve been living in so-called "unprecedented" times for months now. We’ve developed protocols and procedures, talking points and plans. There’s a precedent now for how to confront COVID-19, yet we’re still clinging to usage of this word. Dare we say there’s a precedent for its usage during the pandemic? There’s some irony for you.
It’s becoming a buzzword, business speak, nonsensical jargon. Basically a coded phrase administrators, politicians and leaders can use as a get-out-of-jail-free card to avoid making a decision. And just like other buzzwords and phrases including we’re beginning to loathe it.
We bring this point up not so much out of frustration but more on an appeal for direct and honest communication. Buzzwords and jargon are great for those in the know, but for those on the outside looking in, they often can be viewed as statements of in-groups and out-groups. How’s that for some fearless feedback?
As professional communicators, we can’t stress enough how important words and their meanings are. They must be protected if we can. We feel as though the current use of the word unprecedented is beginning to lose its meaning.
If we’re not careful, the word could go down the path the word "literally" went down a few years back and change its meaning. This should be avoided at all costs.
So how do you go about doing that? Perhaps looks for more direct ways to communicate. Be specific. An example might sound like this: "Before we can make a decision, we need to know the following … " Or maybe: "The current pandemic has changed our situation, and we are now doing (details) in response … "
This gives people a better picture and helps them plan and respond to the situation.
So circling back to our suggested paradigm shift, let’s punt on this useless jargon. Or in layman’s terms, let’s ditch the use of unprecedented. At least until the next unprecedented event takes hold of our daily life.