Is “Unprecedented Times” the Most Annoying New Cliché?

It was sometime in mid-March that I started to become aware of the phrase “unprecedented times” being used as a descriptive term for the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s only a few weeks ago but since the pandemic was announced by WHO (12th March), we seem to be living in a time-frame where one week feels like one-month pre-pandemic time.

I started to take notice of the phrase “unprecedented times” during the announcements by our Prime Minister Scott Morrison concerning the Job Keeper pandemic relief scheme on the 30th March. At the time I was impressed that the leadership of Australia was stepping up to the mark in making appropriate and well-timed responses to the pandemic  (see the YouTube video below).

Scott Morrison — in Aussie style, his name is endearingly abbreviated to (“ ScoMo “ ) — was reported as saying [1]:

“Now is the time to dig deep,” Morrison said. “We are living in unprecedented times. With the twin battles that we face and that we fight against – a virus and against the economic ruin that it can threaten. “This calls for unprecedented action.”

I might not have regarded ScoMo in such endearing terms had I known, at the time, that his message is an echo of an announcement made earlier by British Chancellor Rishi Sunak, of similar relief measures for the UK on the 20th March [2]).

Since ScoMo’s announcement, I’ve been hearing the phrase “unprecedented times” more and more. Even though it’s only been a few weeks, in pandemic time it seems much longer, and that phrase is starting to seem annoyingly clichéd. I’ve managed to avoid saying “unprecedented times” myself but I did catch myself saying: “we’re living through history” at the pharmacy the other day which sounds even more grating and pretentious.

I did a Google search with: “unprecedented times” after:2020-01-31  – and it yielded about 3,730,000 results. just since the end of January Interestingly, the results were for a diverse range of topics, not just topics directly related to COVID-19.

As an aside, there is now an easy way of specifying after and before dates for Google searches [3].

One reason I’m so annoyed with the usage of “unprecedented times” is that it’s patently untrue. As pointed out by Dr Kris Rallah-Baker [4], indigenous Australians have deeper recollections of an epidemic of smallpox that decimated their population when white settlers first came to this land. This applies to indigenous communities in other countries as well.

We’ve also had the Spanish-flu of 1918-20 in the memory of some older people still living. We’re had related major ‘flu epidemics, at least once or twice a decade since the Spanish flu. We’re had the HIV/AIDS epidemic. We’ve had SARS, MERS and more recently the zika virus. It’s not as though the COVID-19 pandemic has come completely out-of-the-blue. There’s been plenty of warning signs that a new major pandemic was a very real threat. None of us can say it’s unprecedented in the sense that it was completely unforeseen.

Dr Kris Rallah-Baker [4] is correct to suggest that it would better to say that these are “dangerous times” rather than “unprecedented times.” The trouble with “dangerous times” is that it’s hard to see how we could do much individually to avert the dangers. Is it the disease itself what we should be afraid of contracting? Or the side-effects of a disease that leaves some people more or less unaffected but for others, it cruelly ravages their bodies or takes away their lives? Should we be afraid of the severely crippling indirect effects that the disease is having on the economy and upon our own livelihoods?

COVID-19 is a completely new virus for humans that no one understands well. Not even the experts in epidemiology. I have heard the expression “uncertain times” being used but it’s interesting that we seem, as a global community, to have settled on “unprecedented times” to express all our fears, anxieties, grief, loss, uncertainty and powerlessness that we’re collectively experiencing during this pandemic.

The final point I want to raise is that in saying “unprecedented times” for the whole of humanity, we are also implying that everyone is affected — so we’re all in this together. However, the phrase “unprecedented times” hides or glosses over the dangers we face. In regard to those dangers, not everyone is exposed equally. For some, notably the elderly, those in nursing homes, indigenous communities and other minorities, those who are homeless or living in overcrowded accommodation or occupying a lower-paying jobs in our society, are exposed to disproportionately higher levels of danger from the effects of this virus. Either through a direct threat to health and life or to the economic impact of the virus.

If we don’t look after these endangered cross sections of our communities then it is to the peril of everyone because the virus takes no heed to your wealth or social standing. It’s coming for everyone it can infect. Unless we  protect the disadvantaged it will come for the better off as well.

In conclusion, the expression “unprecedented time” has become clichéd to the extent that is becoming hard to hear anymore. However, it seems to be the phrase that we’re collectively settled upon as a global society to express our feelings during this pandemic. It expresses our fears for the far-reaching dangers we face, both to health and economic livelihood, that we can’t fully understand.  Importantly, it has become a euphemism, as well as a cliché, so that we don’t have to use words that remind us too much of the real dangers that the virus poses.

What do you think? Tell me in the comments.

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Addition 28th May 2020. ALDI’s Supermarkets in Asia-Australia have started an advertising campaign “Unprecedented times call for Unprecedented Prices” [5]. It was amusing the first few times it played but it becomes highly annoying after hearing the same advertisement dozens of times. My wife says she’ll start tearing her hair out the next time she hears it. I might do the same but its already falling out without further help from me.

Edit: 16th August 2010, a factual error  was corrected. The announcement of relief measures for the UK were made by Chancellor Rishi Sunak rather than Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

___________

[1] Kelly Burke, 7 News, “Coronavirus job keeper: Scott Morrison announces $1500 fortnightly payments to Australian workers,” published 30 March 2020; accessed:  17 April 2020; available online:
https://7news.com.au/lifestyle/health-wellbeing/coronavirus-update-pm-scott-morrison-reveals-new-scheme-to-help-retain-workers-c-771814

[2 Richard Partington, The Guardian, “UK government to pay 80% of wages for those not working in coronavirus crisis,” published: 21 March 2020; accessed: 17 April 2020, available online:
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/mar/20/government-pay-wages-jobs-coronavirus-rishi-sunak

[3] George Nguyen, Search Engine Land, “Search Google by date with new before: and after: search commands,” published 10 April 2019; accessed 16 April 2020,; available online:
https://searchengineland.com/search-google-by-date-with-new-before-and-after-search-commands-315184

[4] Dr Kris. Rallah-Baker, @INDIGENUOUSX, “We live in dangerous times, not unprecedented times,” published 27th March 2020; accessed 17 April 2020, available online:
https://indigenousx.com.au/we-live-in-dangerous-times-not-unprecedented-times/ 

[5] Zoe Wilkinson, Mumbrella, “Aldi’s ‘precedented’ prices continue through these ‘unprecedented times’ in latest spot,” published: 18 May 2020, accessed: 27 May 2020, available online:
https://mumbrella.com.au/aldis-precedented-prices-continue-through-these-unprecedented-times-in-latest-spot-628341 

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