Recency illusion

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 "someone said they liked the play." Although this usage is often cited as a modern invention , it is quite old.[3] The usage is found, for example, in Shakespeare.[4]
  • 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.[3]
  • 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.
  • "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. 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. But its first known use was in 1612.[8]

See also


  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. Zwicky, Arnold (7 August 2005). "Just between Dr. Language and I". Language Log. Retrieved 5 May 2015.
  3. Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Merriam Webster. 1989.
  4. Shakespeare, William (1594). "Act IV, Scene 3". The Comedy of Errors. There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend
  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

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