An Utterly Unique AI

I recently got into it with someone over a quirk of the English language while having some of my work edited. It was a wholly pedantic argument and I thought that I would share it and ask you all to join in with your own thoughts.

It’s the word “unique” and how it is supposed to be an absolute term, and in that capacity it may not have any linguistic or logical value.

The argument goes something like this:

A comment is made that a certain thing is “utterly unique”.

This is rebuked on the grounds that saying something is “unique” indicates that it is the only one of its kind. Therefore it is an absolute, something cannot be more or less unique. Things are either unique, or they are not. It is a term like best, something is either the best or it is not. There is no more best, or less best, or bestest.

However, it is argued, that much beyond the atomic level, everything is unique. Two apparently identical items will have slightly different molecular structures, different amounts of dust accumulated on them, different histories of use, different relative positions in the universe… ergo everything is unique in some way. If everything is unique, the word has no meaning or value. It is automatically redundant.

This is then followed by a brief fist fight and a long night of wondering whether or not anything actually exists.

What do you think? How should “unique” be used? Can it be qualified? Can something be very unique? Should those that attempt to qualify it be dragged into the street and beaten to death with copies of the OED? What is the most bestest way to use it? Are there any other words whose misuse annoys you? Are there any whose misuse is more valuable that the “proper” one?


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. I try not to get too pedantic about these things (despite my very strong instincts), but cliche as it might be I get annoyed by misuse of the word “ironic” to mean “coincidental” or “surprising,” rather than “a result opposite to expectations.” Examples are helpful when explaining this, so I’ve stocked up a few I’ve come across:

    -From George Carlin: “a diabetic being run over by a sugar truck is a coincidence. A diabetic run over by a truck delivering insulin is irony.”
    -From comedian Sabrina Matthews: “Irony is naming the national airport after the guy who fired all the air-traffic controllers.”
    -From my own life, and to circle back around to the original post: “Irony is having more than one student in your class with the name ‘Unique.'”

  2. YES! That sort of thing annoys me TO NO END, and YES, I want to beat people over the head with copies of the OED!

    But wait, don’t misunderstand me! It’s your acquaintance, not you, that I take issue with. In fact, since the OED has already been brought up, let’s refer to it, shall we?

    Definition A.1 is the one your acquaintance is so generously willing to acknowledge, namely: “Of which there is only one; one and no other; single, sole, solitary.”. BUT GUESS WHAT. That’s only the first of nine entries. And in fact, definition A.2.a reads: “That is or forms the only one of its kind; having no like or equal; standing alone in comparison with others, freq. by reason of superior excellence; unequalled, unparalleled, unrivalled.”

    In addition, this defintion includes the following note: “In this sense readopted from French at the end of the 18th c. and regarded as a foreign word down to the middle of the 19th, from which date it has been in very common use, with a tendency to take the wider meaning of ‘uncommon, unusual, remarkable’. The usage in the comparative and superlative, and with advs. as absolutely, most, quite, thoroughly, totally, etc., has been objected to as tautological.” Please note that the OED itself is not endorsing such an objection, merely noting that it exists. However, the OED also notes that in 1818 the word was objected to in ALL of its meanings as ‘an affected and useless term of modern times’. Haters are always gonna hate.

    Perhaps more to the point, though, is that the OED then provides quotations (in other words, concrete EVIDENCE) that the word has been used in both of the above senses since that time. In defense of the meaning that is under trial here, I would offer the following selections:

    1809: R. K. Porter: “As it was thoroughly unique, I cannot forbear presenting you with so singular a curiosity.”
    1866: H. P. Liddon: “[Christ’s] relationship to the absolutely unique.”
    1871: B. Taylor tr. Goethe: “A thing so totally unique The great collectors would go far to seek.”
    1885: Harper’s Mag.: “When..these summer guests found themselves defrauded of their uniquest recreations.”
    1908: K. Grahame: “‘Toad Hall,’ said the Toad proudly, ‘is an eligible self-contained gentleman’s residence, very unique.'”
    1912: G. K. Chesterton: “Diana Duke..began putting away the tea things. But it was not before Inglewood had seen an instantaneous picture so unique that he might well have snapshotted it.”
    1934: G. B. Shaw: “You don’t appreciate him. He is absolutely unique.”

    My point is this. The objection to this usage of the word “unique” is not being presented as a conclusion based on a review of the evidence. Like 99.9% of all language peevers, they are offering up opinion dressed as fact. Now, you can argue that you should avoid this meaning of the word “unique” BECAUSE so many people have chosen to peeve about it, and that is a worthwhile point to consider. But it’s not because they are “right”. The problem is not with the language; it is with them.

    In fact, if your peever were to be shown the entry in the OED, they probably would still feel that they are right and the dictionary is wrong. That’s their choice, of course, but in that situation I would then ask why I should trust their opinion of the English language over the likes of Shaw and Chesterton, et al. To which no doubt they would not be moved. “Those are old sources. The meaning has changed.” Me: “No, I just picked out the older sources to show that the usage is not new. There are plenty of modern quotes as well, see?” Them: “That’s just one dictionary’s opinion.” Me: “No, it’s one dictionary and many writers. But look at almost any other dictionary and you’ll see the same thing.” Them: “Well, they’re ALL wrong then.” Yeah. This is not my first merry-go-round ride.

    Folks, words have more than one meaning. Sometimes those meaning are self-negating. Yes, it can be inconvient. No, denying this truth won’t make it go away. Get used to it.

  3. “Unique” can be qualified because we said it can. It doesn’t have to make sense, language is an adaptive thing. English doesn’t have an academy royal to arbitrarily dictate what is and is not correct. There ain’t no rules, just guidelines that we’re constantly updating as a society. Just as Shakespeare would have some trouble understanding us today, many modern english speakers have trouble understanding his writings. The conventions have changed, and no amount of pedantry will bring them back, or change the course of the language. Frankly, I’m happy with it that way.

  4. Except of course in this particular case the conventions haven’t changed, at least not within the lifetime of anyone here. The “rule” in question doesn’t reflect usage past or present.

  5. I never had a problem with qualifying unique. I always thought of those qualifiers as expressions of the writer/speaker’s degree of emotion regarding the unique thing in question. It’s like the expression “Sparklecorn is fucking beautiful.” No one reading that thinks that there’s a rainbowy, behorned ethereal equine copulating with beauty.

  6. Apologies for lengthy ranting, by the way. I used to be one of those peevers myself, so I am perhaps a little overeager to repent for my past sins.

  7. I can’t believe the depth of argument presented by Breadbox. Thank you for convincing me that I was right in every possible way.

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