‘Unprecedented’ times as over-the-top language goes viral

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,People Management(HR),Strategy & Leadership] August 24, 2020

Hyperbolic language during the COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder to all staff members in the legal sector of the importance of words and the need to use them accurately at a time when face-to-face communication is often difficult, write Trish Carroll and Sharon de Bomford.

We’re putting out the call to lock down the word ‘unprecedented’.

It’s causing extraordinary levels of stress as we all strive to, uh hum, stay apart together. It’s also a predictive cause of Coronavirus Overuse Language Disorder (COLD).

On August 7, 2020, more than 74,000 COLD sufferers stood out on their balconies or in their front yards and screamed. A few quarantinis no doubt helped. It was a community activity to relieve COVID-19 frustrations, especially for those who are tired of baking sourdough, home cleaning rampages and Zoom yoga.

Tess Roberts, the Melbourne-based organiser of this event, suggested that people scream the word  “unprecedented” and to “do so with all the disgust you can manage because it’s the only word anyone ever uses to talk about this pandemic”.  Tess even went so far as to urge people to “roll every venomous syllable off your tongue and then never say this spew word again”.

We hear you, Tess. What the hell has been going on with the abuse of ‘unprecedented?’ It began in January when news reporters worldwide must have lost their thesauruses because ‘unprecedented’ seemed to be the only word used in the media to describe the pandemic. Beyond being overused, the choice of adjective was also wrong. In fact, there have been many pandemic precedents, including the Spanish flu, which infected an estimated 500 million people, and more recently the Swine flu, which is thought to have infected a minimum of 700 million people. It’s fair to say each of those events was uncommon.

Adjectival overload

‘Unprecedented’ has become the adjective of choice for everything associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, from its impact on the economy to the rate of infection, climate change, toilet paper use, home DIY projects, alcohol consumption and anything else you can think of. These references caused abnormal levels of the word’s use, robbing it of its potency and clarity.

Journalists aren’t the only culprits causing COLD. IBM executives in the US used the word ‘unprecedented’ seven times in the company’s April 2020 earnings report. That level of use is remarkable. Even BlackRock, that clever global asset manager, used it five times in its April 2020 earnings report. Again, that is evidence of atypical levels of use.

So, please, as our PM urged the food hoarders back in March: “Just stop it. It’s not sensible. It’s not who we are as a people.”  This word has tried really hard to be everything to all people everywhere. But it has stopped being useful now. Few words can maintain their dignity, let alone their true meaning, in the face of overuse at such exceptional levels.

Perhaps this grim, novel situation makes people feel like they need to use big words to do it justice. We’ve certainly noticed other multi-syllabled words being overused. ‘Existential’ has come out to play at unusual levels. But what does a statement like “the retail sector is facing an existential crisis” really mean? Does it mean that retailers might not exist soon? Or does it mean that retailers are worried about the freedom and responsibility of the finite human individual? Either way, while the sector is certainly facing difficult and unique challenges, it seems a bit extreme to invoke the philosophies of Kierkegaard in this context.

Even the Oxford English Dictionary is perpetuating COLD risks. In April 2020 it introduced COVID-related words; here are just two:

  • Infodemic, noun: “a proliferation of diverse, often unsubstantiated information relating to a crisis, controversy, or event that disseminates rapidly, and ….”; and
  • Elbow bump(at ELBOW n.): “(a) a blow with or to the elbow; an injury resulting from this;  (b) a gesture (usually of greeting or farewell) in which two people lightly tap their elbows together as an alternative to a handshake or embrace, esp. in order to reduce the risk of spreading or catching an infectious disease.”

It can’t be long before ‘Karen’ (a female d***head, noun, vulgar slang: a stupid, irritating, or ridiculous man), ‘zoombombing’ (the act of hijacking a Zoom meeting), ‘quaranteams’ (online teams), ‘covidiot’ (people who ignore public health advice), and ‘corona moaner’ (needs no explanation) get a listing, too.

Plain and simple

The legal profession trades in words, making COLD a new danger. Written client communication has never been more important than it is now that so many face-to-face options are not available. And arguably, the most important client communication you have at this time is through your day-to-day work.

Clients, and your colleagues, value communications and advice written in plain language. To do that you need to use language that makes it easy for your clients to find, use and understand the information they need. The only way to achieve that is to avoid words that are unclear, overused, misused or jargonistic.

So if you feel COLD symptoms coming on and feel the urge to type ‘unprecedented’, try using one of the 10 synonyms we’ve underlined in this article instead. It’s a proven cure.

In fact, if we all try a bit harder we might actually rid the world of overused, incorrect and vague language. Now, that hasn’t happened before.

Trish Carroll, Principal of Galt Advisory, and her dearest friend and colleague, Sharon de Bomford, Principal of Write Results, both love plain language.  They collaborated to write this article because they wanted to give readers a chuckle as they ponder their own language choices. Trish can be contacted at trish@galtadvisory.com.au  and Sharon at sharon@writeresults.com.au