The recency illusion is the belief or impression that a word or language usage is of recent origin when it is in fact 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 to reference a singular antecedent, as in someone said they liked the play. Although this usage is often cited as a modern invention, it is found in Jane Austen and 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. In fact, 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.”

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