"Unprecedented" has to have been the single most important word of 2008. More groundbreaking, earth-shattering, gut-wrenching, and pulling-our-your-hair news stories headlined 2008 than any other year since the Great Depression. And back then, we didn't have CNBC and a gaggle of market pundits shoving "end of the world" predictions down our throats 24 hours a day.

So what was the biggest surprise of 2008? We narrowed the biggest events of the year down to these five shockers.

Have a look, and don't forget to vote at the end.

Bear Stearns/Lehman Brothers bankruptcies
OK, so Bear Stearns didn't technically go bankrupt, but there's no question that's where it was heading had the Fed not orchestrated a merger with JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), giving investors their first taste of not just financial fallout, but hardcore government intervention. Lehman Brothers wasn't so lucky and actually did file for bankruptcy back in September -- the largest in history -- sparking what many believe was the catalyst that threw the economy into meltdown mode.

When Vikings attack
You want to see what systemic risk looks like? Head to Iceland. It taught us that an entire country can fall into the trap of reaching for too much return with the perils of leverage. Iceland's banks were leveraged to the hilt with a hodgepodge of foreign collateralized debt that went ka-boom once the global lending binge came to an end, virtually bankrupting the country and obliterating its currency, the Icelandic Krona.

Market volatility
Going back to 1928, six of the top 50 worst days -- and four of the top 50 best days -- for the Dow Jones occurred in 2008. The peak of the hysteria came during a 72-hour clown show when the Dow surged 11% on October 13, then fell nearly 8% on October 15. Even seemingly solid and dependable stocks like General Electric (NYSE:GE) and Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B) weren't immune to the pandemonium, both collapsing in November before recovering ever so slightly late in the year. Rumor has it E*Trade might start issuing airsickness bags with each new brokerage account.

"No" Vote in House of Representatives' first attempt at $700 billion bailout
One of the largest -- and certainly the most controversial -- news stories almost never came to fruition when the House of Representatives voted down the $700 billion proposal to bail out the financial system back in September. The bill eventually passed, but just the threat of failure was enough to send stocks plunging 5% and credit markets back into the fetal position.

Fannie and Freddie fallout
The epitome of moral hazard, Fannie Mae (NYSE:FNM) and Freddie Mac (NYSE:FRE) reminded us what happens when you mix shareholder-owned companies with an implicit government guarantee. The Treasury took a 79.9% stake in the two in September, shifting the risks from a decade of real-estate ballyhoo onto taxpayers.

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Fool contributor Morgan Housel owns shares in Berkshire Hathaway. JPMorgan Chase is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection and a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, and has a disclosure policy.