Unprecedented…

Unprecedented” must be the most over-used word in the English language right now. I’m tired of it. Especially because it’s used so often without thought.

Unprecedented means never done or known before; never having happened or existed in the past. True, the specific COVID variation of the coronavirus is new (hence the name novel coronavirus). But If we’re talking about pandemics, there’s nothing new there. Humans have experienced them throughout recorded history.

MPH Online is an independent online resource for public health students. In 10 of the Worst Pandemics in History, they say…

Scientists and medical researchers for years have differed over the exact definition of a pandemic (is it a pandemic, or an epidemic), but one thing everyone agrees on is that the word describes the widespread occurrence of disease, in excess of what might normally be expected in a geographical region.

Cholera, bubonic plague, smallpox, and influenza are some of the most brutal killers in human history. And outbreaks of these diseases across international borders are properly defined as pandemic, especially smallpox, which, throughout history, has killed between 300-500 million people in its 12,000 year existence.

It’s hard to get a sense of the relative magnitude of these diseases over the past 2,000 years. Here’s the best thing I found to give some perspective. Click on the image below to see the full pandemic timeline right up to COVID-19…

History of Pandemics

To bring this closer to home, here’s a photo of my maternal grandmother, who was born at the beginning of the twentieth century and lived until 1979. Click on her photo, taken in 1904, to see what she lived through…

My Grandma in 1904

And so…

If we still want to convey that we’re having an experience that has never occurred before, here are some synonyms to at least make our language more interesting and possibly more accurate. Take your pick…

What word best describes it for me? 

How about for you?

3 thoughts on “Unprecedented…

  1. I couldn’t agree more Laurana. At one time, I appreciated the word..now it annoys me. It is reminiscent of how I came to feel about “awesome” years ago.
    The video linked to your grandmother’s photo (so adorable) provides such a valuable perspective. Relatively speaking, I have no idea what living through real hardship is like, so I am inclined to say to myself and the younger generations..”buck up little camper or get off the road of life” 😉
    I really like weird also so I will go with bizarre, mostly because there seems to be so much contradicting information about this particular pandemic or epidemic. Or perhaps I didn’t pay as much attention to previous occurrences of widespread disease? Not to minimize the seriousness of and the devastation for many from Covid19, but I don’t recall there being so much hoopla, for lack of a better word.
    Thank you for sharing this.

    • I also don’t remember much hoopla in the past, Susan. I was in my early 20s at the time of the pandemic of 1968-70, so that got me puzzling over why things are so different now, to the extent that every child is talking about COVID. I think it’s because of the social distancing and lockdowns — concepts I had never heard of before now. So I looked up the history, and discovered it’s a 21st century notion, and this is the first time the idea has been put into practice as a broad-scale public health measure. Here are a few snippets from an April 22 article in the NY Times:
      …it took a high school science fair, George W. Bush, history lessons and some determined researchers to overcome skepticism and make it federal policy…. The effort began in the summer of 2005 when Mr. Bush, already concerned with bioterrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, read a forthcoming book, “The Great Influenza,” by John M. Barry, about the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918. …
      [two] teams came to the same conclusion and published papers on their findings within months of each other in 2007 [finding] early, aggressive action to limit social interaction using multiple measures like closing schools or shutting down public gatherings was vital to limiting the death toll….considerable skepticism among local officials, public health experts and policymakers in Washington …The administration ultimately sided with the proponents of social distancing and shutdowns — though their victory was little noticed outside of public health circles….Then the coronavirus came, and the plan was put to work across the country for the first time. Reference: “The Untold Story of the Birth of Social Distancing,” The York Times, April 22, 2020
      And as we might say, the rest is now becoming history!

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