Monday, August 12, 2013

A message for the future: Unique

A note to my children in the future: This may be difficult to believe with how language is by the time you read this, but there was a time when "unique" meant "one of a kind." One of your grandfather's pet peeves about contemporary English usage (of which there were many) was when people would preface that term with a modifier (for example: "the most unique") to suggest a spectrum along which something could be varying degrees of being one of a kind.

Obviously this usage stemmed from the application (some would say misapplication) of "unique" as a euphemism for "unusual" or "distinctive" or "uncommon" (or other such adjectives) where there is more of an implicit possibility of relative status where modifiers could be applicable, unlike the binary status the traditional definition of "unique" held.

Even in these days just prior to you coming into the world one will hear "unique" used in that idiomatic sense, so one can only imagine that by the time you are old enough to be using such terms yourself common English rhetoric will have adapted to the "unusual" connotation and make it so that using "unique" to mean "one of a kind" will, itself, make one unique.

I trust I will have imparted to you an appreciation for the word's original meaning so you do not misuse it egregiously—consider that something of a tribute to your grandfather—but also given you an understanding that language is an ever-adapting thing where you do need familiarity with how to interpret what others say.

Nonetheless, our lexicon is filled with thousands and thousands of words that allow for identifying one's intended meaning with precision. It's perfectly acceptable to learn some of them and dispense them appropriately.

With any luck I will have taught you how to identify situations where it is better to eschew that, both to gear your message to your audience and to reduce the likelihood of getting your ass kicked. There is a need to know the difference between being distinctive and standing out.

It is not always ideal to be unique, but I do hope there are still moments when you can embrace that you are.


  1. Yes, you're unique, just like everyone else. (Found my feedreader again, finally. Couldn't remember where I'd put it.)

  2. And the captcha, just for fun, was "penialis". Seriously.


So, what do you think?