Recency illusion

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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 coined by Arnold Zwicky, a linguist at Stanford University primarily interested in examples involving words, meanings, phrases, and grammatical constructions.[1] 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".[2]

According to Zwicky, the illusion is caused by selective attention.[2]


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 "If George or Sally come by, give them the package." Although this usage is often cited as a modern invention,[3] it is quite old.[4][A]
  • 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.[4]
  • 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.[citation needed] They go back to at least the 18th century, and are commonly found in the works and letters of such writers as Benjamin Franklin.
  • "Literally" being used figuratively as an intensifier is often viewed as a recent change, but in fact usage dates back to the 1760s.[5]
  • "Aks" as a production of African American English only.[citation needed] Use of "aks" in place of "ask" dates back to the works of Chaucer in Middle English, though typically in this context spelled "ax".[6]
  • The word "recency" itself. It is commonly used in consumer marketing ("analyze the recency of customer visits")[7] and many think it was coined for that purpose.[citation needed] But its first known use was in 1612.[8]

See also[edit]


A. Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage noted, "Although the lack of a common-gender third person pronoun has received much attention in recent years from those concerned with women's issues, the problem, as felt by writers, is much older" (1989, page 901).


  1. ^ Rickford, John R.; Wasow, Thomas; Zwicky, Arnold (2007). "Intensive and quotative all: something new, something old". American Speech. 82 (1): 3–31. doi:10.1215/00031283-2007-001.
  2. ^ a b Zwicky, Arnold (7 August 2005). "Just between Dr. Language and I". Language Log. Retrieved 5 May 2015.
  3. ^ Mora, Celeste (May 12, 2020). "What Is the Singular They, and Why Should I Use It?". Grammarly blog. Grammarly. Retrieved July 9, 2021. Admittedly, using the singular they in a formal context may still cause some raised eyebrows, so be careful if you’re submitting a paper to a particularly traditional teacher or professor. But the tides are turning, and English will soon be more efficient
  4. ^ a b Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Merriam Webster. 1989.
  5. ^ Zimmer, Benjamin. "Literally: a history". Language Log.
  6. ^ Lippi-Green, Rosina (1997). English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States (2nd ed.). London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415559102.
  7. ^ root (14 February 2011). "Recency, Frequency, Monetary Value (RFM) Definition". Investopedia.
  8. ^ "recency". Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

Further reading[edit]