The Best Words To Use During Unprecedented Times

With the entire globe weathering COVID-19, the highly infectious respiratory disease caused by a new coronavirus, we are in uncharted territory. Humanity has of course seen other seismic events, but something as novel as this new pandemic can't be described easily. Not many people, if any at all, have experienced anything like this.

We all have experienced other challenges during which casual words just don't describe what we're feeling. Events like natural disasters, periods of political change, or something entirely new (like a pandemic) can leave us grasping for something to say.

Having words to describe our extreme situations can help us better connect with the people around us who are going through the same experiences. It's easy to rely on everyday words (how often have you said to your friends, "This is crazy"?), but having an arsenal of words that describes unprecedented times a little better helps us understand our emotions and communicate them.

Here are just a few of those words to empower you right now.

unprecedented

One of the most apt words to describe the current reality seems like a good place to start. We used it in the previous slide, but let us explain it a little better ...

Unprecedented is an adjective meaning "without previous instance" and "never before known or experienced; unparalleled." If you've been keeping up with the news, you'll have seen this word used quite a lot. Instead of defaulting to "I've never seen anything like this before," say "This is completely unprecedented."

The first records of unprecedented are from 1615–25. The root word is precedent, a noun for "something done or said before that is used as an example for the future." The prefix un- means "not." 

Unprecedented stands out from other words like atypical or unique as it relates to specific events. It's commonly used in the phrase an unprecedented event/time. It can also be used for decisions, especially by a government. In fact, it was originally used in reference to the British Parliament.

Keeping this word in your back pocket will have you better equipped to describe a time or occurrence that is completely new to you and others.

surreal

If you've ever seen a painting by Dalí, Magritte, or Picasso and found yourself confused by the canvas, you'll know what we mean with this word. The art movement all those artists belong to is called Surrealism.

Something that is surreal is "disorienting, unreal, fantastic; having the hallucinatory quality of being in a dream." That definition describes the twisted shapes and strange figures of works of art from the Surrealist movement perfectly. Surreal is actually a back formation of Surrealism that emerged between 1935–40. Surrealism was recorded in 1920–25.

While you should definitely use surreal to describe the idea of millions of people having to quarantine themselves in their houses and using the internet as a proxy for human interaction, you should also save it for the moments of quiet you'll find in your neighborhoods, or when you hear the birds instead of cars during rush hour.

perturb

Perturb is a verb meaning "to disturb or disquiet greatly in mind; to throw in disorder." Here's how you would use it in a sentence: With her loud music, my neighbor seemed to be doing everything in her power to perturb my workflow.

This word was first recorded in 1325–75. It stems from the Latin perturbarē, "to throw into confusion." The Middle English word is perturben and the Old French is perturber.

Times of uncertainty and things completely novel to us can perturb our status quo. Many of us are dealing with a new routine that involves finding ways to work, eat, exercise, be entertained, and socialize with one another. That's why this word is particularly useful: My daily routine has seriously been perturbed by my lack of access to a gym.

anomalous

Although they sound related, anomalous and anonymous have nothing to do with each other. Anomalous does, however, share a root with anomaly.

By definition, something anomalous is "deviating from or inconsistent with the common order, form, or rule." It's the perfect word to use during deep dives into the unknown.

First recorded in 1640–50, anomalous comes from the Greek anṓmalos meaning "irregular." The word anomaly is a close cousin, coming from the Greek anōmalía.

It may be tempting to use the phrase not normal to describe something unprecedented. However, this is vague and doesn't paint the entire picture that anomalous does. You could say, "Something's not right about what's going on." Or you could try instead: "This anomalous situation has changed my future plans."

Specificity can be a lifesaver when using language to relate to your peers; using the perfect word to tell your friend how you feel can prompt a reply of "Me, too!"

uncanny

Similarly to the word surrealuncanny calls on the supernatural to explain the discomfort that can come with events completely new and seemingly out of our control.

This word means "having or seeming to have a supernatural or inexplicable basis." It can also mean "mysterious" or "uncomfortably strange." It was first recorded in 1590–1600, and it is composed of the word canny or "careful, cautious, prudent" and the prefix un- for "not." You may be familiar with the term uncanny valley. Coined in a 1970s robotics essay, the uncanny valley describes how we tend to like robots that look human-like, until they start looking too lifelike.

Similarly, when there's a major change in the way life is lived it might not register at first. Little by little, a situation worsens, but we only notice when we're past a tipping point. Describing life as uncanny means that while you may be going on with normal activities like working or eating dinner with your family, the real situations outside of the mundane are anything but normal.

nonplussed

Now is as good a time as ever to learn how to use this word. This word has been misused so often many people confuse the fake definition for the real one. It's nonplussed, and no, it doesn't mean "unimpressed." It wouldn't be on this list if that was its definition!

Nonplussed, to clear the air, means "to render utterly perplexed, to puzzle completely." Records show it was first seen in 1575–85, from the Latin nōn plūs, which literally means "not more, no further (i.e., a state in which nothing more can be done)."

When you're nonplussed, you don't know how to react to a situation. You're literally too puzzled to make heads or tails of what's going on. Don't be troubled by the proper use of this word, we'll help you! Take these examples:

  • Recent reports left scientists nonplussed and unsure about how to conduct further trials.
  • I was originally nonplussed by the idea of working from home, but I found supplies to make it easier and now enjoy it.

discombobulated

Discombobulated might sound like a word made up by a child, but it should become part of your vocabulary for times when nothing makes sense. Like nonplussed, discombobulated means "to confuse or disconcert" but adds an aspect of anger as well, "to upset or frustrate."

The origin of this word goes to 1825–35. Leave it up to the good ol' United States of America to create this one. Can you guess which words make up discombobulated? It's an alteration of the words discompose or discomfort. The prefix dis- means "apart, asunder, or away."

Running out of coffee would have you feeling discombobulated. It communicates you're feeling harebrained due to some disruption. If anything, the word is sure to get a rise out of your friends. I was so discombobulated when Zoom wouldn't work for my meeting!

forlorn

Mixed in among feelings of confusion and anger are those of sadness. Yes, forlorn has graced the pages of many a romance novel. It sounds like something that a Shakespearean character would utter in a monologue. That doesn't mean you can't use forlorn for gazing out your window and remembering the last time you went to your favorite restaurant.

Forlorn, meaning "desolate or dreary," "lonely and sad," or even "bereft" describes the melancholy that often comes with change. It's multiplied by how bleak a situation can appear, or the possibility that there is no end in sight. During these times, it's OK to feel sad, depressed, or even forlorn.

People have been feeling forlorn since the word was recorded before 1150! In Old High German it was firliosan, in Old English forloren, and foreloren in Middle English. Through all these changes, the word has retained its meaning of woe, especially for something that has been lost.

Here's how to use it: Looking at all these old vacation pictures has me feeling forlorn.

saudade

This word has no true translation in English, but it's such a specific emotion that it bears learning. The feeling of saudade, according to the Portuguese and the Brazilians, is a deep feeling emblematic of their culture. To sum it up, it's a deep emotional state of longing for a person or thing that is absent. But saudade isn't pure sadness like feeling forlorn.

Saudade was recorded around 1910–15 in English texts, although in Portuguese it seems to have originated in the 12th–15th century. It appears in many Portuguese songs and works of art, like the famous songs by Brazilian singer and songwriter João Gilberto.

The deep nostalgia that is central to the word saudade can easily be felt in times of transition or when you're in a completely unfamiliar place. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people miss their friends, loved ones, or the simple pleasure of going out to a favorite cafe or being in a room buzzing with people.

solidarity

During times of strife, it's important to remember that you have people in your corner. That's where the word solidarity comes in. It means "union or fellowship arising from common responsibilities and interests." First recorded in 1840–50 and derived from the French solidarité, this word has been used in important texts to describe the importance of community and is a term accepted in the field of sociology.

It's important to find community in hard times, as no one makes it through something difficult alone. Having or showing solidarity looks like helping your neighbors, asking if your friends are alright, or making the time and effort to check in on the most vulnerable members of your town.

For example, you can use solidarity to describe the relationship between workers (e.g., By offering to cover each other's shifts anytime someone needed it, the workers crafted intense solidarity between one another) or humanity at large (e.g., The solidarity of people helping each other through hard times shows that we're all connected).

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