The recency illusion is the belief or impression that a word or language usage is of recent origin when it is long-established.
The term was invented by Arnold Zwicky, a linguist at Stanford University who was primarily interested in examples involving words, meanings, phrases, and grammatical constructions. However, use of the term is not restricted to linguistic phenomena: Zwicky has defined it simply as, "the belief that things you have noticed only recently are in fact recent".
Linguistic items prone to the Recency Illusion include:
- "Singular they": the use of they, them, or their to reference a singular antecedent without specific gender, as in someone said they liked the play. Although this usage is often cited as a modern invention, it is quite old. The usage is found, for example, in Shakespeare.
- The phrase between you and I (rather than between you and me), often viewed today as a hypercorrection, which could also be found occasionally in Early Modern English.
- The intensifier really as in it was a really wonderful experience, and the moderating adverb pretty as in it was a pretty exciting experience: many people have the impression that these usages are somewhat slang-like, and have developed relatively recently. They go back to at least the 18th century, and are commonly found in the works and letters of such writers as Benjamin Franklin.
- "Aks" as a production of African American English only. Use of "aks" in place of "ask" dates back to the 1600s and Middle English, though typically in this context spelled "ax".
- "Intensive and Quotative ALL: something old, something new", John R. Rickford, Thomas Wasow, Arnold Zwicky, Isabelle Buchstaller, American Speech 2007 82(1):3–31; Duke University Press ("what Arnold Zwicky (2005) has dubbed the 'recency illusion', whereby people think that linguistic features they've only recently noticed are in fact new").
- Language Log: Just between Dr. Language and I
- Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Merriam Webster. 1989.
- Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, Scene 3 (1594): "There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend"
- Lippi-Green, Rosina. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. London: Routledge, 1997. Print.
- Zwicky, Arnold (17 November 2007). "The word: Recency illusion". New Scientist 196 (2630): 60. (subscription required)
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