The Plague-Ground – “If I had but one word to delete….”

It’s only April and already we know what the Word of the Year will be:

“Coronavirus.”

It was first coined in 1968, but no one outside the world of science had heard of it until January, and now, like the pandemic it describes, it’s everywhere. In fact, there’s a case to be made that “coronavirus” is the first truly global word: used by everyone everywhere in hundreds of languages – a lot. The 8 Billion-Person Word.

But there’s another word we see almost as much, a word I want to strangle.

It’s “unprecedented”, as in ‘In these unprecedented times…….”, a phrase that arrives in my Inbox at the top of far too many emails.

I run from its clunkiness, its pretension, its replacement value for “Dear Friend”.

I hate that it’s so overused; it means less and less the more we see it.

As Mamma Cass said: “Worn-out phrases and longing gazes won’t get you where you want to go.”

But most of all, I hate its length.

Does it really take five syllables to express this three-syllable idea?

So how about ‘unrivalled’ or even ‘unheard-of’?

Maybe.

And speaking of ….well, why don’t we call Front Line Workers “Frontliners” instead, and Essential Workers  “Essents”? Much faster and cleaner, and doesn’t “I’m a Frontliner” sound better than “I’m a Front Line Worker?”

But we can always do better than I can.  In fact, using our collective intelligence, I think we can come up with a replacement for ‘unprecedented’ that’s even shorter. By this I mean a word of two syllables or even one. Given that the pandemic isn’t going to disappear (or a vaccine appear) any time soon, think of all the breath, space and cyberbits we’ll save.

And if we can do that for this one word, I believe we can shorten other pushy words like “curate”, “pivot”, and vacu-phrases like “We’re in this together,” and “Keep Calm and [Whatever].”

So I’ve decided to hold a contest. It’s in two parts:

  1. Please send your shorter, sweeter version  of “unprecedented”
  2. Please send another word or vacu-phrase you’ve come to loathe in the past weeks — along with its replacement.

Just post it in the Comments Section of this blog post for all to see.

Our Unelected Committee of Exorcists will take the next few days to assess the candidate words and determine the winner and runners-up.

If your entry is a winner or draws honorable mention, you will win a prize, which is a free ticket (and eBook) to the first RamsayTalks Online – live with Jared Diamond on May 14th.

Which is the longest-winded way I know to tell you that we’re up and running with our events again, and to expect not just The Plague-Ground in your Inbox, but news of great new ideas from the world’s most original and articulate minds.

After all, these are unprecedented times.

89 replies
  1. Avatar
    Jon Linton says:

    Hi Bob – Am enjoying your postings. So in response:

    1) Replacement for ‘Unprecedented’ – how about an acronym: SNIB (So New It’s Baffling) or SNIFU (you can figure that out yourself).

    2) My peeve phrase is ‘Stay Healthy’ – although I must admit I have used this on occasion myself. I kind of like Dan Rather’s sign off of ‘Courage!’, but that seems a little pretentious.

    Another that is starting to be overused is ‘the new normal’ – but as for a replacement, I got nuthin’.

    Reply
  2. Avatar
    Rebecca Clements says:

    In my previous comment I forgot to add a vacu-phrase and its replacement. My pet peeve is “it is what it is.” Well, duhhh…

    Replacement? Nothing. Sweet silence. Let people’s marbles roll around and sort it out for themselves.

    Reply
  3. Avatar
    Alice Goffredo says:

    1. novel
    2. stay home and stay safe……”be careful out there” (from Hill Street Blues I think…although we shouldn’t really be ‘out there’ but for frontliners and essentials)

    Reply
  4. Avatar
    Louise says:

    Love a good contest! Right up there with filling in a form for a hospital visit (favourite questions: name your surgeries and any broken bones?).
    Least favorite phrase: STAY SAFE.. What, watch out for roaming snipers? Look both ways before you cross the street? Always carry a hat pin? And it sounds incredibly privileged. Anyway why say it? Shouldn’t we assume everyone wants to be safe from corona? And there is ultimately, pre-vaccination, no way to ensure one can stay safe. Ergo, leave it out.

    Unprecedented. Alternative: the new-new

    Reply
  5. Avatar
    Blaine Pearson says:

    1. Bizarre or new
    2. Peeves are ‘Be Well’ and ‘Stay Safe’ if this is the ‘New Normal’ (eyeroll) then how about a “normal” sign-off like, ‘Yours’ or ‘Regards’?

    Reply
  6. Avatar
    Chris Rudge says:

    1. How about “new”…haven’t seen it used in the contact of the current challenges which would, of course, make it …..unprecedented!

    2. Instead of “Commander in Chief of the Greatest Nation in the History of the World” for a certain leader of a country close to Canada we use “Dunning-Kruger Effect Patient #1” ….still a touch long but hard to come up with one word other than that used colloquially for a certain part of the anatomy on our middle backside which may be somewhat indelicate for your readers.

    Cheers…Chris

    Reply
  7. Avatar
    Katya says:

    This is a lovely idea. Thank you Bob for stirring us every morning- or rather being the voice for our frustrations and ruminations.
    1. New. I think brevity is always that sister:)). Maybe New way. But I think in most contexts New should be sufficient. (As a linguist, and a psychotherapist I find it hard to find equivalencies without a specific context- so much can depend on it)
    2. From coast to coast to coast. This one is nice when heard once or twice, but….
    Should be a different substitution every time. In our land, throughout our country, in Canada etc.

    With everybody’s irritant- Stay safe- we always say Take care- and nobody minds. It’s just a new relevant way of the same magic thinking that My wish can protect You.

    Reply
    • Bob Ramsay
      Bob Ramsay says:

      Katya — It seems lots of people don’t like to be told to Stay Safe, though we’re all trying to be. Thanks for writing. Bob

      Reply
  8. Avatar
    Ruth says:

    How about NEW instead of unprecedented? As for the term of the week which I find vacuous, how’s ‘gaslighted’?

    Reply
  9. Avatar
    Fela says:

    1. Unprecedented doesn’t bother me that much. Replace with singular? I’ve been calling it the insidious virus. It’s very sneaky and defies definition.

    2. Irritating to hear the ‘new normal’. There is no new normal, there is only the ‘now normal’. Perhaps this will teach us to live more in the present.

    Instead of stay safe, we could say stay put (joking, not so nice). But I prefer to end by saying ‘big hug’ to my friends and nothing to work colleagues, or talk soon or take care.

    Reply
  10. Avatar
    Jini Stolk says:

    From my favorite cartoonist First Dog on the Moon: coronavirus is unprecedented in its unprecedentedness – I for one will never use that word again!

    Reply
  11. Avatar
    Lynn (Carolyn) Smart says:

    I prefer “toxic times”. If we had been more concerned in 1968 when this virus was discoverered, we would not be in such a toxic environment now.
    I do not like Be Safe or Stay healthy, but rather the way we used to sign out: Love, Lynn

    Reply
  12. Avatar
    Jane M says:

    “Unprecedented” is a pet peeve for me. The times only feel unprecedented because we personally have never live through a pandemic, but there have been many and there will be many more. It will always be thus with viruses and their human hosts.
    As for a replacement, we can replace it with nothing. Henceforth, we just stop using it.

    Reply
  13. Avatar
    Marion Miller says:

    Love love love your musings.. and truths ..thank you Bob

    A replacement for unprecedented.. “A First”

    “Stay healthy”, very overused.. At this point, when you see premature openings.. “Be Responsible” and as I am in the travel industry “See you soon in Africa “” Being in the bush will be such a healing experience..

    Hugs to you and Jean.. and Be Responsible.. and see you soon in Africa 🙂

    Reply
  14. Avatar
    Cindy Caron Thorburn says:

    Hi, Bob. When I started to read today, I assumed you were going in a different direction as to why we would want to “strangle unprecedented”. I simply think these times are NOT unprecedented. Unique in many specific regards, sure. But everything old is new again. Cinemas and swimming pools closed when polio ran rampant. Venetian seamen self-quarantined centuries ago upon return from their world travels. All sorts of miracle “cures” were touted to remedy the Black Death in the 1300s (though, ok, I doubt anyone was counselled to drink bleach). And humanity has known widespread fear, contagious as any disease itself. Happily, it also has known acts of kindness, documented and undocumented, that connect, enrich and heal us. So, “unprecedented,” no. “A defining moment in the history of our species and how we inhabit the planet as the human collective”? Sorry for all the syllables, but it’s likely up there. Or, maybe, it’s just a Def-Mo: a defining moment. P.S. Thanks for all your wonderful blogs, my friend.

    Reply
  15. Avatar
    Cliff Goldfarb says:

    “New” is good enough for me.

    I cringe every time I hear “we’ve got your back”, “that’s what Canadian’s do” and “we’re all in this together”. Let’s hear the truth. Most of us can handle it.

    Reply
  16. Avatar
    HJM says:

    1) DamnDemic
    2) Avoid It

    And the bonus word… ‘consideration’
    Stay Safe ,or Keep Healthy ,or Take Care should not be irritants if they are said and sent with sincerity. Like receiving an unwanted birthday gift, it’s the thought that counts most

    Reply
  17. Avatar
    Martha Haldenby says:

    1. Humbling
    2. Live-stream (The idea that you can translate live experiences into digital ones without completely redesigning them)

    Reply
  18. Avatar
    Tim C. says:

    1. The word that is currently synonymous with unprecedented, more accurately describes these particular unprecedented times and is slightly shorter is: Trumpian. We hope that Trumpian does not become a precedent.

    2. no other phrase has yet elevated itself to loathing with me.

    Reply
  19. Avatar
    Lorraine M says:

    Yes, Bob I love the homework you have given us. So nice of you Lol
    It does get tiring to hear some of those words and phrases repeated over and over again by people around us. So this is thoughtful fun to come up with creative alternative words. Yeah!!
    A substitute word for unprecedented I think could be Unbelievable or another, Unimaginable.
    A substitute for me right now, with the Stay Safe term would be, Keep well and Stay Home.
    Thanks Bob. I look forward to your musings each day. God bless you.

    Reply
  20. Avatar
    Martha Haldenby says:

    1. Humbling
    2. Live-stream (the idea that you can easily translate a live experience to a digital one without re-designing it somehow!)

    Reply
  21. Avatar
    Maggie Bras says:

    Hello Bob. I am thoroughly enjoying your blog – thank you.

    1) New, unique or unknown.

    2) Hugs is my favourite if I am writing to family or friends. Be safe is still my go to, because I mean it.

    Hugs, and stay safe and hello to Jean. – Maggie

    Reply
  22. Avatar
    Michael Cord says:

    fun thoughtful blog as usual Bob thanks…pandemics being never ‘unprecedented’ yet each new one expressed as a puzzling specific epidemiology and problematic societal response in a remarkably threatening way so: ‘in these Remarkably Threatening Times’…so as not to overplay nor underplay and still yield a lovely textable acronym (words are so 20th Century) such as ‘By The Way I Hope You Take Care In These RTTs’ eventually yielding: ‘BTW IHYTC IT RTTs IMHO’ for the ultimate appeal to, not least, millenials

    Reply
  23. Avatar
    Wendy Cecil says:

    I share your frustration with repetitive expressions! The English language is rich! We just need to use our imaginations…Thank you for bringing this up Bob and for requesting suggestions and substitutions! After all, decent writing communicates clearly, but it also contains variety.

    In place of “unprecedented”, which, after the third time, starts to sound pretty clunky, I suggest “record” or “historic”.

    I too, am really tired of “pivot” which always sounds like a basketball player went slightly crazy and escaped from the court. I suggest the very useful even if slightly pedestrian word “change”. If you want something a little fancier, how about “redirect” or “alter” or even “switch” all followed by “to”.

    Reply
    • Bob Ramsay
      Bob Ramsay says:

      Wendy — Good to hear from you. The Committee will take all of your entries under consideration! Cheers. Bob

      Reply
  24. Avatar
    Holly Sarian says:

    Considering that we are, for the most part, dealing (if not struggling) with a glut of time, I’m thinking that leaving the original long versions might be not only welcome but rather satisfying (not to mention fulfiling?)(Just saying…)

    Reply
  25. Avatar
    Susanne says:

    Unprecedented – what about Interesting (like that Chinese saying. See what I just did there?) or Remarkable?

    My pet peeve is (apart from all of the ones written by others here) the emoji for prayer hands. OK OK not a word but still super smarmy, insincere and irritating. Not that I feel strongly about it or anything.

    Reply
  26. Avatar
    Michael Zitney says:

    The most accurate substitute for “unprecedented” is “novel”. The experts were using it to describe the actual virus at the beginning, as in “novel Coronavirus”; this seems to have died off lately as we’re all becoming far too familiar with it. The problem with “novel” is it feels like “fictional”, which (aside from most of the news), this situation is clearly not. I would love the press to use a term like “global”; we’re really dealing with this all over the world. It is quite unifying, in the way the old science fiction movies from the 1950’s depicted the great nations declaring a ceasefire from fighting each other to finally unite and work together fighting space creatures. Unfortunately, “global” has become far too political with tinges of George Soros putting all our poor border guards out of work. I think there is a role for something along the lines of “pioneering” or “trailblazing” because we’re heading into territory most people on earth have never been.
    I’ve “Covided” enough already; my vote for the replacement word is “arduous”. Nice and round to pronounce, it represents the difficulty we are all having just living our lives these days.
    Thanks, Bob!

    Reply
    • Bob Ramsay
      Bob Ramsay says:

      Michael — Thanks so much for wading in so substantively on this….Indeed, I share Mr. Soros desire to put those poor border guards out of work! And I like arduous,. not only because of its roundness, but its Latinness….Cheers. Bob

      Reply
  27. Avatar
    Lorraine Patterson says:

    I’m not doing the contest properly, but a dear departed friend’S motto, sign off used to be “surgite”. Push on. I think about him and that these past weeks. Just sayin. Thanks, Bob, for these wonderful posts. You still write like an angel.

    Reply
  28. Avatar
    Barbara Nawrocki says:

    Good Morning Bob

    1. For unprecedented, I would suggest “most unusual” times.
    2. Irritating phrase: “stay safe”…as everything I do still does not guarantee that I will be safe.

    However, I am grateful that I am still moving in a forward direction even if it is only in my home, my backyard and my neighbourhood on my daily walks. Keep up the great daily postings, always look forward to them.

    Barbara

    Reply
    • Bob Ramsay
      Bob Ramsay says:

      Thanks, Barbara…….I agree with you about “stay safe.” It’s as if I signed off every e-mail in Pre-COVID-19 days by saying “Stay alive.”
      Cheers.
      Bob

      Reply
  29. Avatar
    Kirsten Chase says:

    Bob – Is the contest over? Is it too late? I’m failing once again to be productive enough during these “unprecedented times”.
    My entries:

    1. ‘bewildering’ (as in: no one has this thing figured out yet)
    * with my runner-up being ‘singular’ or ‘singular global event’ (as in: we’ve not experienced this exact same thing as a world-wide collective before)
    2. My most hated statement? “this too will pass” – has a religious connotation and seems vapid and sanctimonious (like the speaker has it all figured out); my hatred for this expression is growing in leaps and bounds daily.

    Reply
    • Bob Ramsay
      Bob Ramsay says:

      Kirsten — I’m so glad your hatred of “this too shall pass” is rising by leaps and bounds. So much does these days, including phrases from our childhood
      (when I went to church)… Cheers. Bob

      Reply
  30. Avatar
    Sharon McM says:

    1. Replace “Unprecedented” with “Epic” or “Novel”. Succinct and to the point.
    2. Vacu-phrase ‘working from home’ can be shortened to WFH (not to be confused with WTF!) Ok I borrowed the acronym, still a good example of being succinct.
    Very much enjoying the blog. And a most interesting virtual speaker coming up, with Jared Diamond; I read a chapter of this book, on history of Chile, so interesting.

    Reply
    • Bob Ramsay
      Bob Ramsay says:

      Sharon — I too am reading Jared Diamond, now on the “Finland” chapter. He does make otherwise invisible places fascinating!
      Cheers. Bob

      Reply
  31. Avatar
    Jo-Ann Hartford says:

    1. hapnot (It has never happened/unprecedented)

    2.delete “briefing” when Trump blathers for two hours

    Reply

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