The Recency Illusion

From Language Log, here‘s a post about the “Recency Illusion,” “the (often inaccurate) belief that a usage you have recently noticed is in fact a recent development in the language.” Not something I’d ever thought about in particular, although I suppose it’s not surprising—prescriptivist grammar pundits tend to be very much in the “we’re going to hell in a handbasket” mold, and hence are predisposed to think that “bad” == “new” (where “bad” means “not to their liking”). (Curmudgeons have said civilization has been going to hell in a handbasket ever since there was civilization, and probably before there were handbaskets. We have yet to arrive. Unless maybe we started there.) The standard examples seem to be “singular they” and “between you and I.”

Here are a couple of usages that seem recent to me. Can you, dear readers, tell me that I’m wrong? Please do, I’m genuinely curious.

  • The “historical present”: “Caesar now crosses the Rubicon.” Not that using present tense for past actions has ever been unusual in certain contexts, but it now seems universal among, for example, talking-head historians in TV shows. I don’t remember that being the case at all before the advent of the History and Discovery Channels, and their low-budget endearingly-cheesy-reenactment shows. I figure it’s out of a (false) sense that the present tense is dynamic and interesting while past tense is dull and stuffy. But maybe I was just missing it before.
  • “Gone missing”: that sounds very British to me, and I don’t remember hearing it in common American use until the last few years. Was it? According to this article, no—it cites Chandra Levy as the turning point. Is that right?

On the subject of Briticisms crossing the pond, I nominate “shambolic” to be the next one. Any others?

 

For the record, I’m fine with “singular they,” as English really has no good alternative construction. “Between you and I” annoys me, but I don’t think I ever thought it was new.

Also for the record: I say Condit called his no-good brother Darrell in a panic about Chandra being pregnant and wanting Gary to be her forever lover, and Darrell said something to the effect of, “I’ll take care of it.” This he then did.

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