Unique and Monique

We all know that words often change meaning over time. No one expects “answer” to mean “swear in response” as it did in Old English.

But while they’re in flux, those who know a word’s original meaning usually consider it wrong to use it differently. Time goes on and either the new meaning becomes acceptable (“answer” means simply to respond), or it doesn’t, and it’s dropped.

But how do we know when a word is finally acceptable? It’s not as though it happens in one day. For many years, people use a word in what some people would call an ignorant fashion, until it becomes most people using it that way. But for a long time, there will still be people saying that it’s wrong. Do those people have to die before the change is final?

I think that there are at least two phases after a word becomes well-known, but before it becomes really standard.

The first is when people who care about these things (and even people who don’t, but who consider themselves educated) would never use it that way, and in fact, they sort of judge people who do use it. They roll eyes, or cringe a bit, or get annoyed when they hear role-models (like politicians) use it. They consider the usage a pet-peeve, or laughable.

The second is when the people who care about these things would still not use the word, but they accept that even educated, intelligent, well-read people do use it the new way. They start to feel curmudgeonly, or pedantic, if they insist that others avoid the new usage. They recognize that they’re on the way out.

Example of the first kind: Irregardless.

Logically, irregardless should mean “not regardless” or “not without regard,” and therefore “with regard.” But of course, we all know that a lot of people use it to mean “regardless.” And many of us still cringe a little when we hear or (even worse) read the word. I’d never use it, and in my meanest moods, I wonder how anyone who went to college can use it.

[Of course, logic has nothing to do with language. Tons of word meanings are correct and illogical at the same time.]

The Oxford English Dictionary has something like 8 quotations using the word irregardless, dating from the early 1900’s, but all but two seem to be making fun of people who use it. So I will, too. Or, at least, I’ll continue to never use the word myself, and assume that people who do use it don’t know better.

Example of the second kind: Unique

“Unique” is another word in flux. Unique means one of a kind. The only one. Each fingerprint is unique.

But lots of people use the word to mean “different,” or “unusual.” This is clear from the phrase, “very unique.”

The question is, do enough people use it that way to make it standard, acceptable English? Almost.

I don’t use it that way, except in the sloppiest of times. But I know lots of educated, smart, wordly people who do use it that way. Yes, wordly. They may even know that it’s not the original definition, but they use it anyway (the way I almost never say “whom,” even though I know when I should, according to the rulebook).

My hope is that “irregardless” will die, or stay unacceptable. (I can’t explain WHY I hope that. The truth is that the loss of “unique” as a precise word is bad, while the gain of another word meaning “regardless” doesn’t matter much.) But I think “unique” is too far gone to come back. Another generation or two and no one will even mutter under their breath when someone remarks how picture A is more unique than picture B.

10 Responses to Unique and Monique

  1. Shane July 30, 2007 at 12:59 am #

    I’m with on you on “irregardless.” I instantly lose a little bit of respect when someone uses it, in spite of myself.

  2. Kevin July 30, 2007 at 9:32 am #

    One of my favorites in this regard is “literally”, which has lost it’s meaning even in journalism.

  3. weeklyrob July 30, 2007 at 10:09 am #

    Yeah, how “literally” came to mean “not literally” must be a great linguistic story.

    It always bothers me when a word that’s specific becomes general, and we lose the precision of the original word in the language. Now, there’s no common word that really means one-of-a-kind. But still, as I say, irregardless bugs me more than unique.

    “Oxymoron” is another one. It’s more specific than “contradiction in terms,” but has taken over and no one knows the difference. So now, in common usage, there’s no word that means precisely what “oxymoron” should mean.

    There are a million of these, so I shouldn’t go on.

    I decided not to do a whole post on phrases that no longer make sense. Like when people say, “I could care less” when they mean that they couldn’t care less.

    Or, “the proof is in the pudding,” when the original was, “the proof of the pudding is in the tasting,”

  4. Kevin July 30, 2007 at 12:38 pm #

    You lament the loss of precision, but I laugh at words that become their own opposite, like your “irregardless”, my “literally”, and one of Cathy’s favorites: “peruse”.

    As far as inflammable, I think it was (snicker) inevitable because it’s a poorly constructed word for English. There are many examples, but it’s a bad idea to have the same prefix mean “not prone to” and “prone to”. You see “inflammable” and you relate it to “inflexible”, not “ingeneous”. We should do a search and replace in the dictionary and change all affirmative uses of “in” to “en”.

  5. BruceS July 31, 2007 at 6:53 pm #

    Your timing is interesting. I’ve just been reading _Eats, Shoots, and Leaves_, about the importance of correct punctuation. It’s main premise is that punctuation errors like grammatical, and spelling errors, can not only lead to confusion but is also offensive to pedants. The author throws in a lot of humor—shes really quite amusing.
    I have to stop now.

  6. weeklyrob July 31, 2007 at 9:48 pm #

    Yeah, I know the book, though I haven’t read it. I’ve read bits and pieces. She’s also written on one being polite, I think.

  7. BruceS August 3, 2007 at 6:21 pm #

    I’ll have to look for that one, as I really like her humor.

  8. JoeW August 8, 2007 at 11:31 pm #

    A few comments:

    1.I know this isn’t where the blog or comments were going, but has anyone noticed that people have started to change the pronunciation of the word “literally” to sound like “litrully?” I believe it is most likely in an attempt to sound smart, and possibly British (or like Madonna).

    2. Someone very well-educated once tried to convince me that “irregardless” should fit into your phase 2! As if it is actually accepted now. I know, total BS.

    3. Last year I heard the word “conversate” for the first time, and I have since heard it 2 or 3 more times. Is this the next “irregardless?”

    4. Incent? Incentivize? Is either word real? Should this be in phase 1 or 2? I think both suck but are more emphatic and effective than “motivate.” When I use either word in a sentence, I cover my ass by following it up with something like, “Incent? Incentivize? Are those even real words?”

  9. weeklyrob August 9, 2007 at 2:57 pm #

    I have heard the litrully thing, but not enough to have thought about it (until now).

    I can’t find “conversate” in Merriam-Webster Unabridged or the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Those kinds of “back-formations” do happen all the time, though, so maybe it’ll catch on. Since we already have a simpler word (converse), I hope it doesn’t!

    [A back-formation, for those less geeky than I, is a word that comes from a supposed (but mistaken) root of a longer word.

    Example: People may say conversate because they think that’s the root of conversation.

    The word “scavenge” comes from the much older noun “scavenger.” Scavenge wasn’t a verb until people shortened scavenger.

    A pea in a pod used to be called a pease, but people began to assume that pease is a plural word, so called a single pea a pea.]

    Incent and incentivize are both new enough, and they sound like business silly-speak to me. According to the OED, incentivize was first used in print in the late 60’s, and incent in the late 70’s.

    I think they’re used enough in business to be acceptable there, though I personally try to avoid a word in business that doesn’t also work outside the office.

    Your method of using the word, but not committing to it, is pretty funny. It reminds me of another method that people use: The air quotes. “I don’t use the word, but I know others do, so here it is.” 🙂

  10. Lisa May 17, 2010 at 8:25 pm #

    Along the lines of “could care less” is “can’t wait.” My father used to tease us kids mercilessly if he caught us saying that. “Oh, really, you can’t? What are you going to do then… keel over and die?” We were always (strongly) encouraged to say ‘can hardly wait…’ and I still say that all these years later.

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