What Was That Again?
Received a press release recently with the title, "DÉJÀ VU: Home Raffle Drawings are Gaining in Popularity." It began: "Home raffle drawings [are] popping up across the country, in the trough of a global recession. The contests were last popular in the early 1980s, when the U.S. economy was similarly suffering -- high unemployment, a credit crunch and a bottomed-out real estate market."
How is this déjà vu? Déjà vu is an individual experience, for one thing, not the collective experience of the housing market. More importantly, the term refers to a situation that seems strangely familiar, yet which you know is not. Home raffles might last have been popular at an earlier time, but merely recalling that fact seems like accessing a straightforward memory, not experiencing an eerie false sense of familiarity.
Most of us have language pet peeves, and this is one of mine: the misuse of déjà vu simply to refer to "something that has happened before." English has plenty of ways to say that, but none to describe the real sensation of déjà vu. The borrowing from French has the added bonus of sounding slightly mysterious. It would be too bad to lose its genuine meaning.
You don't have to look very hard to find other examples of the misuse. I googled the term and on the first page was directed to a squib about the weather in Oregon: "[On Saturday], the National Weather Service predicts a repeat of Friday's conditions, with rain likely in the evening and a low around 40 degrees. Sunday is the same again, with the chance of precipitation pegged at 90% and overnight temperatures that will feel like deja vu."
Interestingly, there's a related term that's not being misused, probably because it isn't widely known yet: jamais vu. Called the "opposite" of déjà vu, it refers to not recognizing a familiar situation.