"Frequency illusion" in the OED

« previous post | next post »

The latest batch of updates to the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary includes a term that originated right here on Language Log, in a 2005 post by Arnold Zwicky. The term is frequency illusion, first attested in Arnold's classic post, "Just Between Dr. Language and I." Here is the OED treatment, an addition to the main entry for frequency:

frequency illusion n. a quirk of perception whereby a phenomenon to which one is newly alert suddenly seems ubiquitous.
Also called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon (see Baader-Meinhof phenomenon at BAADER-MEINHOF n. 2).
2005   A. ZWICKY Lang. Log 7 Aug. in http://itre.cis.upenn.edu (blog, Internet Archive Wayback Machine 10 Sept. 2005)    Another selective attention effect..is the Frequency Illusion: once you've noticed a phenomenon, you think it happens a whole lot, even ‘all the time’.
2018   R. J. HILTON in J. Marques & S. Dhiman Engaged Leadership (e-book, accessed 25 June 2018) xiv. 244   The frequency illusion occurs when you buy a new car, and suddenly you see the same car everywhere. Or when a pregnant woman suddenly notices other pregnant women all over the place.

In Arnold's 2005 post, he also introduced the Recency Illusion ("the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent"), and in a followup post he completed the Zwickyan trifecta with the Adolescent Illusion ("the consequence of selective attention paid to the language of adolescents ('those kids') by adults"). Those two haven't entered the OED yet, though you can find a discussion of all three illusions as part of Kerry Maxwell's BuzzWord series on the Macmillan Dictionary site.

The frequency illusion definition cross-references the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon — another update in the OED's March 2019 batch, an expansion of the entry for Baader-Meinhof. The entry first treats Baader-Meinhof as used in the phrase Baader-Meinhof gang (or group): "designating an extreme left-wing terrorist organization operating in West Germany (and later Germany) between 1970 and 1998." Here is the updated part:

2. attributive. Designating a quirk of perception whereby a phenomenon to which one is newly alert suddenly seems ubiquitous. Chiefly in Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.
Also called the frequency illusion (see frequency illusion n. at FREQUENCY n. Additions).
1994   ‘Gigetto on Lincoln’ in Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minnesota16 Oct. (Express section) 12/2   Many years ago, I identified a phenomenon so startling and so broad in its application that it encompasses..many..forms of eerie coincidence. I have dubbed it The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon… The phenomenon goes like this: The first time you learn a new word, phrase or idea, you will see that word, phrase or idea again in print within 24 hours.
2012   Sun (Nexis) 9 Dec. 14   Whether it was the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon or mere synchronicity, we noticed an awful lot of pheasants on the way to the Pheasant Inn near Bassenthwaite Lake in Cumbria.
2015   Edmonton (Alberta) Jrnl. (Nexis) 5 June (Books section) c10   I am in the early, still-raw-and-reeling stages of De-wife-ification, a.k.a. divorce. So I see the word Wife everywhere. It's Baader Meinhof Syndrome.

The 1994 citation from "Gigetto on Lincoln" appeared as part of an online discussion in the St. Paul Pioneer Press (a discussion that the Pioneer Press returned to in 2007). The term got significant exposure in 2006 when Alan Bellows wrote about the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon for the site Damn Interesting. Later, he added an update acknowledging the origin of the expression in the 1994 Pioneer Press discussion, as well as noting frequency illusion as a parallel term.

Frequency illusion isn't the first Language Log-ism to make it into the OED. Eggcorn got there first, back in 2010 — you can read all about it here.

Update: The coiner of Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, who used the pseudonym "Gigetto on Lincoln," is Pioneer Press reader Terry Mullen, according to Dan Kelly, the former feature editor who published his reader submission. I see now that Terry left a comment back in 2006 on Alan Bellows' Damn Interesting post describing the peculiar feeling of coming across a reference to one's own coinage more than two decades after the fact.


  1. Arnold Zwicky said,

    March 19, 2019 @ 8:20 pm

    an inventory of postings (on this blog and mine) on illusions postings:


  2. Bartleby said,

    March 19, 2019 @ 10:27 pm

    I'm surprised that "recency illusion" isn't also going into the OED. I wonder why one but not the other.

  3. AJD said,

    March 20, 2019 @ 12:22 am

    Perhaps the editors perceived that "frequency illusion" is widely used, but "recency illusion" was coined not very long ago and hasn't had time to become established yet.

  4. Adam F said,

    March 20, 2019 @ 4:50 am

    @AJD — excellent!

  5. KeithB said,

    March 20, 2019 @ 8:48 am

    These seem to be all subsets of confirmation bias.

  6. Thomas Shaw said,

    March 20, 2019 @ 9:04 am

    It seems to me these phenomena are notably different from confirmation bias in that they describe new beliefs resulting from experience, rather than confirmation of preexisting beliefs.

  7. Success Washington said,

    March 20, 2019 @ 1:04 pm

    The frequency illusion occurs when you buy a new car, and suddenly you see the same car everywhere. Or when a pregnant woman suddenly notices other pregnant women all over the place.
    What is the meaning for "the frequency illusion"?

  8. DWalker07 said,

    March 20, 2019 @ 2:04 pm

    @Success: As the red text in the original post says, giving the meaning of Frequency Illusion:

    frequency illusion n. a quirk of perception whereby a phenomenon to which one is newly alert suddenly seems ubiquitous.

  9. Success Washington said,

    March 20, 2019 @ 3:01 pm

    Thank you to DWalker07. I mistake unique to ubiquitous.

  10. BobW said,

    March 21, 2019 @ 3:55 pm

    NOT an illusion! I'm convinced that so many people were impressed by my beautiful car that they went right out and bought one.

  11. Geoff said,

    March 22, 2019 @ 6:54 am

    Is this a record for the frequency illusion? About ten minutes ago I saw a new word for the first time, I'm certain, on a news website. The word was 'incel', meaning involuntary celibate.
    I saw it again on a different news website about five minutes later.

  12. Andrew Usher said,

    March 22, 2019 @ 7:24 am

    Hah, 'incel' (not completely new to me) is an atrocious word, not only because its pronunciation is awkward.

    This is certainly at least sometimes a kind of confirmation bias; at least the 'recency' illusion is most often driven by a belief (maybe not conscious) that the grammar is declining and all these terrible offences against the language must be new, or mostly so. The 'frequency illusion' can be, as well. Previous posts have mentioned how people often believe something occurs 'all the time' until presented with hard evidence to the contrary; humans aren't very good at mental probability.

    But not always, I suppose, so we do need a different term. In the confirmation bias one ignores, denies, or minimises explicit evidence against one's belief; but here there is no such evidence because (short of assembling a good-sized corpus) there's no evidence that people _don't_ say something often, or don't more often than they used to.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    March 23, 2019 @ 10:07 am

    In what way do you perceive "incel" as being awkward to pronounce, Andrew ? For me, it and Intel are (a) identical apart from the second consonant, and (b) without apparent pronunciation difficulties.

  14. Barry Cusack said,

    March 23, 2019 @ 4:24 pm

    First: Congratulations to this excellent blog, of course.
    Second: Many years ago I was introduced to the motor-car example, very like the 2018 quotation from the OED. It was said that this was an example of “mental set” i.e. that the brain (following an action such as purchase of a new car) was particularly sensitive to noticing further examples, giving rise to an illusion (in the car case, of an apparent frequency of the same marque of beautiful car).
    “Mental set” would seem to be a reasonable term as an explanation of the phenomenon. But I think psychologists now use this term for something different. Maybe another term is now used, or possibly, needed.

  15. Kiwanda said,

    March 27, 2019 @ 8:15 am

    At some point I noticed someone use "maliciousness" instead of "malice". Then I noticed maybe "ferociousness" instead of "ferocity", "conciseness" instead of "concision", and I thought this must be a new linguistic trend. But looking at google trends etc., no, it was just a frequency illusion.

RSS feed for comments on this post