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05 May 2012

Native speakers misusing English #2: “unique”

It is hard to resist clicking on a headline like this: Blazing Mouse Sets Fire to House. I did so this morning, on the BBC website, and read about a mouse which emerged from a pile of burning leaves in the garden of a suburban home in New Mexico, where the owner was getting rid of organic waste, and fled into the house, setting it on fire. The entire building and everything in it was destroyed.
     According to the BBC, Captain Jim Lyssy of the Fort Sumner Fire Department said, “I’ve seen numerous house fires, but nothing as unique as this one.”
     The first language point to make is that I doubt that Capt. Lyssy wanted to say that the fire was unique, but that its cause was. The more important point is that there can be no degrees of “uniqueness”. To describe something as “unique” it to say that there is only one. Therefore, you cannot have, as many native-speakers often say quite wrongly, that something is “very unique” or “absolutely unique”. To describe something as “totally unique” is a redundancy. “Unique” and “totally unique” have exactly the same meaning. The word “totally” adds nothing and so is not necessary.
     Likewise, for Capt. Lyssy to say, about the mouse-induced house-fire, that he had seen “nothing as unique” implies that he thinks there can be degrees of uniqueness, which there cannot—no more than there can be degrees of “one-ness”. A quantity is either 1 or not 1. It can be “nearly 1” or “almost 1” or 1.00001, but not “very 1” or “totally 1”. Amongst adjectives, the word “unique” is unique and so must be used uniquely, if you get my meaning.
     The nice part of the story is that it illustrates the useful phrase: “poetic justice”. The reason why the mouse was in the pile of burning leaves in the first place was because the owner of the (now ex-)house, Luciano Mares, 81, put it there. He found it on his property, and decided that rodent trespass warranted the death penalty. But instead of killing the mouse as humanely as he reasonably could, or introducing it to his cat, this geriatric sadist decided he would sentence the trespasser to be burnt alive, like a medieval witch or heretic.
     So he threw it into the pile of burning leaves.
     So his house burnt down, and everything in it.
     Serves him bloody well right, as we used to be allowed to say in Britain and are, thankfully, still free to say in Russia.

1 comment:

  1. There is a similar issue with russian words "уникальный" and "уникальнейший". The latter is widely used, but, as you mentioned, we can't compare "uniqueness" of two things. However, the suffix "-ший" has a comparative meaning (for example, "старый" and "старейший").