There I was, all set to gripe about the trendy breaking-down of the word unique into various degrees. You hear it all the time these days, from TV news anchors and talking-head analysts. Sports commentators and talk-show hosts are just as guilty, sitcoms and even public television documentaries. What am I carping on about? The trendy breaking down of absolutes into degrees: there are no degrees of absolutes – either it is or it isn’t.
Well, not quite. It seems the folks at Merriam-Webster see it otherwise; they have a caveat in their definition of the word unique: “In modern use both comparison and modification are widespread and standard …” They even provide an example:
We were fairly unique, the sixty of us, in that there wasn’t one good mixer in the bunch
— J. D. Salinger
You often hear people say very unique, sort of unique, a little unique, kind of unique, somewhat unique, you get the idea. Annoying as that can be, evidently it isn’t wrong. Something can be almost unique, that’s not a degree, but rather falling short of the whole. You could also substitute perfect for unique and people will still want to slice it up into degrees: as in; the most perfect apple pie. Was one perfect pie more so than another? Again, you can be almost perfect: it can be said that a baseball pitcher who retires 26 batters then gives up a single was almost perfect.
Another fun one is surrounded on three sides. According to Merriam-Webster to surround is to enclose on all sides. Something can be bordered on three sides, but surrounded? Afraid not. You either are surrounded or you aren’t.
Once a means of checking whether or not a word was an absolute was to use the pregnancy test. No, not the one you pee on …
Once a means of checking whether or not a word was an absolute was to use the pregnancy test. No, not the one you pee on, but the one where you substitute the word pregnant for the word in question – I think we can agree there are no degrees of pregnancy, there are trimesters, and months and various developments, but either you are, or you aren’t.
So the next time someone says “This is a really unique situation”, while it may well grate on your ears and nerves, alas, it’s no longer wrong. Let’s hope we don’t start hearing “She’s just a little bit pregnant”.
(I am pleased to say the WordPress spell checker highlighted all the “degrees’ of perfect in this post.)