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“Well then, allow me to retort.”1

Et tu, Brute?

Merriam-Webster Online asked readers to submit their favorite mondegreens. A mondegreen is the result of mis-hearing song lyrics. For example: “The girl with kaleidescope eyes.” Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.) But this post isn’t about mondegreens. It’s about this sentence by, of all people, Merriam-Webster:

“Over the next few weeks, we will feature the best and most unique entries from various categories.” (Emphasis added.)


Texas Appellate Lawyer

I disagree with people who claim that things are unique or not unique, and that there are not varying degrees of uniqueness (so, things cannot be very unique).

Unique does mean one of a kind. But, something can be one of a kind but not that different from other things, while something else can be one of a kind and far different than anything else. Take fingerprints. Each fingerprint is different from all others, so it is--by definition--unique. But, fingerprints come in pretty standard categories of loops, whorls, etc. Now, suppose that I had fingerprints that were checkerboard patterned. My prints would not only be unique (like everyone's) they would be very unique (one of a kind in a way quite different from everyone else).

So, Merriam-Webster is likely looking for the mis-hearings that are the most different from the others. I.e., the most unique ones.

Alan Childress

Am I the only one who is not bothered by the "more unique" issue? I avoid it just so I won't have this conversation and be labeled stupid. But I am nuanced enough to believe that uniqueness is a sliding scale, like pregnancy or beautiful. Lots of real things are relatively unique, versus relatively common. Unique has long sense left its origins of being one and only one. Just like being mad at someone does not mean insane anymore.

I don't say "different than" but recognize that everyone else does and I would be pedantic to correct them. Same with "convinced to do that."

BTW, what is the actual lyric if not kaleidoscope eyes? I always thought is was.

Alan Childress

And "decimated" really means reducing by one-tenth. But no one means it that way anymore.

Ray Ward

Responding to everybody: If Joe Blow had written “most unique,” I’d let Joe slide. But for crying out loud, this is Merriam-Webster. Hence the title of this post. If MW can’t stick to proper usage, then the foundation of civilization itself is decayed. (Come to think of it, ...)

This post also brings to mind something George Carlin once wrote: “Unique needs no modifier. Very unique,quite unique, more unique, real unique, fairly unique, and extremely unique are wrong, and they mark you as dumb. Although certainly not unique.”

Alan Childress

I obviously agree with Texas Appellate Lawyer and disagree with George Carlin. Especially *because* I agree with TAL (and like his or her explanation better than mine), I want to clarify that I wrote my comment without seeing his or hers (they both got posted later), so that the sideswipe about "different than" was not directed at him or her.

Indeed, I think it makes my point. Someone that intelligent accepts "different than" without hesitation, and I understood his or her point clearly, so it must be acceptable. This despite Edwin Newman having a whole section on that and "hopefully" in his Strictly Speaking.

I read that book when I was a kid and was quite the pedantic disciple for a while. But I have come to believe that once something is used a certain way enough, *that* is what it means now. Language is by the people and not for the people. Only when it is distracting or unclear should it be considered "wrong." Hopefully.

Kasey Libby

This conversation reminds me of an instruction I received my freshman year in high school. My English teacher told our class that when writing, we should say someone is "nice" but not "very nice." She said the modifier was pointless - if someone is nice, someone is nice. But I meet many different people who are varying degrees of nice. How do I distinguish someone in a brief way who goes out of his way to pick me up on the side of the road when I run out of gas, drive me to a gas station, and then drive me back to my car, from a friend who gives me a ride to class in college because it is convenient for him since he is in the same class? In my mind, one proved himself to be very generous while the other proved himself to be somewhat generous.

If I cannot say in one phrase something that draws out the difference, my only other option is to say, "This person is generous," followed by telling the story as to why. Is the telling of the story the rule? Or is the rule that I can say "very generous" only in the context of comparing one person to another person who is "somewhat generous," but if I am only talking about one person, I must use "generous" and let the reader figure out how generous?

Ray Ward

There's no rule against "very." It's just that often, you can find a more descriptive word. For instance, you would not say that hell is very warm, or even very, very warm. You would say that hell is fiery, or scalding.

As for "nice," I disagree with your English teacher. You can have degrees of niceness. So "very nice" isn't wrong; but something else may be more descriptive, e.g. "generous," or "selfless," or self-sacrificing."

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