As regular readers of this blog will know, I am very interested in languages and communication. I do not really speak any foreign language [although I have plans to brush up my Italian], so my main focus is English. I do my best to understand and utilize my mother tongue as well as I can.
I am not a language purist – I readily accept that languages evolve over time and adapt to the place where they are being used. For example, I have no problem with American English, which many Brits feel is a corrupt form of the Queen’s English. It is not; it is simply a local dialect [which happens to be spoken by more people that there are English inhabitants]. I do not have a problem with language evolution over time – words change their meaning as society changes. However, I do get upset when such changes are as a result of ignorance and threaten to damage the language and inhibit our communication …
When I first visited the US, nearly 25 years ago, I was struck by the odd use of the word “momentarily”. People would say “I will be with you momentarily”. This literally meant that they would be with me for a short time. What they actually meant was that they would be with me after a short delay – in a short time. I saw this as a corruption of the meaning of the word, but not one that was particularly damaging, as ambiguity was unlikely. I observe that nowadays, even in an English dictionary, both meanings are listed. The language has evolved.
Some changes, however, are unwelcome. I am so tired of hearing [on both sides of the Pond] people or things described as “very unique”. This is meaningless. It is like referring to someone as “slightly pregnant” or “a little bit dead”. Something is unique or it is not; there are no half measures. I would just about accept “almost” unique. If there are just 2 identical objects, the loss of one would render the other unique, so I suppose they are both almost unique.
What people mean by “very unique” is “extremely unusual”, which is not the same thing at all. The reason why I am so resistant to this change is that the word “unique” has no really good simile. So, if its meaning is changed, we will have no clean way express the concept of uniqueness. Maybe we would need to steal a word from some other language. Any suggestions?
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