The unprecedented “unprecedented”

May 1st, 2020 | Rachel Arndt

In spring 2020, email marketers got a new favorite word.

COVID-19 has upended nearly every aspect of life—including the way we talk. Consumers and brands mirrored each other in language, with both groups telling the world just how unprecedented COVID-19 and its effects are.

In 2020, the word “unprecedented” appeared 81M times in banking emails under 11 different subject lines, according to Comperemedia data. 

The trend caught quickly on Twitter, with a surge from just 1M mentions of “unprecedented” in February 2020 to 6M in March 2020, according to Comperemedia analysis of Infegy data. This compares to fewer than 1M in March 2019. If the use of “unprecedented” continues at this rate on Twitter, it’ll appear 500% more than it did in 2019. 

While the meaning of “unprecedented” is static, the tone shifts with context. ESPN announced the NCAA’s “unprecedented” decision to hold men’s and women’s basketball tournaments without fans. 

US Bank used it to emphasize the gravity of the government’s actions to help mitigate an economic recession. 

News media, including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal, incorporated “unprecedented” in headlines, efficiently adding an extra element of seriousness to stories.  

Source: The New York Times
Source: The Wall Street Journal
Source: Los Angeles Times

What we think 

“Unprecedented” is starting to sound like nonsense.

The constantly changing nature of COVID-19, coupled with the novelty of the pandemic, means something unprecedented happens nearly every day. Therefore, the frequency of the word is unsurprising. And the word felt right, at least at first.

But that’s changing: “Unprecedented” is not a euphemism, but repetition is making it begin to sound like one. Though marketers and the media are using the word correctly, it’s losing its meaning. To continue to effectively communicate that the world has never experienced something like the COVID-19 pandemic before, marketers will need to come up with new ways to express the sentiment. 

Rachel Arndt

Rachel Arndt

Rachel Arndt is a Marketing Intelligence director. Drawing on marketing intelligence data, she delivers custom insights by uncovering how brands are marketing—and what they should be doing to move their strategies forward.