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recency illusion

noun [uncountable]

the belief that a word, phrase, grammatical construction, or word meaning is recent, when in fact it has existed for a long time

'The recency illusion … is the tendency to think "Whoa, that's new to me. It must be new to the world!" I had a little bout of the recency illusion with the word "thoughty," which has meant "thoughtful" for centuries …'

GOOD 18th September 2009

It's an experience that you might be familiar with – you come across a concept, concrete or abstract, for the first time, and you assume that, as it's new to you, it must be new to everyone, only later to discover that this 'thing' has been around for donkey's years.

This sort of phenomenon is particularly significant in the domain of language. As language users, it's not uncommon for us to register a particular word or usage for the first time, and assume that it's therefore new, while in fact it's something that just happens to have slipped our personal radar. As someone who collects and investigates new words, I need to be particularly careful that I don't fall into this trap, which is now being referred to as the recency illusion.

A notable example of the recency illusion is the use of pronouns they and their to refer to a singular antecedent, as in e.g. Everyone came with their partner or This is what a person does when they feel shy. This usage is often considered to be a modern invention, sometimes associated with 'inclusive' (i.e. not gender-specific) language. It does however, occur as far back as the works of Jane Austen and even Shakespeare.

the recent economic downturn brought the financial lexicon into the spotlight, and thereby spawned a couple of instances of recency illusion

From a more topical angle, the recent economic downturn brought the financial lexicon into the spotlight, and thereby spawned a couple of instances of recency illusion. One was the term stagflation (a combination of stagnant and inflation referring to an economy suffering from stagnant economic growth while inflation continues to rise), highlighted by the media as a new blend created by contemporary economists, but in fact dating back to 1965 when it was coined by former chancellor of the exchequer Ian Macleod. The other is the expression credit crunch, indisputably used to characterise the zeitgeist of the late noughties, but in fact dating back more than 40 years to a financial crisis on Wall Street in 1967. Crunch as an expression of 'crisis' or 'critical point' goes back even further, first used by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1939.

Background – Arnold Zwicky and recency illusion

The term recency illusion was coined in 2005 by American linguist Arnold Zwicky. It in fact belongs to an entire taxonomy of linguistic illusions, including its antithesis, the antiquity illusion, which refers to the belief that a word, meaning, grammatical construction, etc. that you're familiar with has been used for a long time, when in fact it was only coined recently. Other illusions include the adolescent illusion, the (mistaken) belief that young people are responsible for what some consider to be 'undesirable' language trends (e.g. text speak and abbreviations, associated with teenagers but in fact used by texting and e-mailing adults of all ages) and the frequency illusion, the idea that, once you know of a particular linguistic phenomenon, you decide that it occurs a lot, but that's just because you happen to notice it more readily and are therefore tricked into believing that it's particularly frequent. Zwicky claims that such illusions are the effect of what he refers to as selective attention, positing a general theory based on what you, as an individual, happen to have noticed.

It's been argued that these kinds of illusion need not be confined to the domain of linguistics. The frequency illusion, for instance, is a good example – ever had the experience of seeing something for the first time, it could be an item of clothing or food, a style of writing, a street sign, a flower or plant … and then feeling like you see it everywhere?

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 30th December 2009.

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