Origin and usage
The adjective unprecedented is formed from the noun ‘precedent’ with an affix at each end. It was first used in English in the mid 17th century.
People often refer to the unprecedented nature of the situation in which we currently find ourselves. The noun ‘precedent’ has both a general and a legal meaning, the latter often forming part of compounds that have specific meanings in legal practice. In law, a precedent is a decision made by a court on which future decisions are based, while precedent is the practice of making legal decisions in this way. Although the adjective ‘precedented’ exists and has been in use since the 17th century, it is very rarely used; it occurs only 144 times in our enormous corpus of contemporary English. The adverb unprecedentedly is also rather infrequent, occurring only a couple of thousand times. Nouns that are frequently modified by unprecedented tend on the whole to be rather positive: they include ‘unity’, ‘opportunity’, ‘prosperity’, ‘accuracy’, ‘growth’ and ‘insight’. Other frequent collocates are the more neutral ‘pace’, ‘scale’ and ‘level’. Unprecedented is often itself modified by an adverb: common ones include ‘almost’, ‘nearly’ and ‘virtually’, as well as ‘wholly’, ‘totally’ and ‘utterly’.
“Global temperatures are rising at an unprecedented rate, causing drought and forest fires and impacting human health.”
“With police wielding unprecedented powers to invade privacy, tap phones and conduct searches seemingly at random, our civil liberties are in a very precarious condition.”
novel, groundbreaking, untried