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Rant – Unique means UNIQUE! Argh! April 22, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in rant.
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21 comments

I’m not a die-hard “Queen’s English”, “thou shalt not split infinitives” type but I am sick of people miss-using the word Unique.

The word unique means being one of a kind, the only example, the singular occurrence, the absolute only one. One. Singular. Get it? Still don’t get it? Well it means….unique! As a word that has only one unequivocal meaning, “unique” pretty much bloody well is it, by it’s absolute definition. It’s a yes/no situation. If you are unique in some respect, it means you are the only one example.

Now we lot in the database world should be bang on certain about this, what with Unique Keys and the like, and you would expect that other group of pedantic types – scientist – would be sticklers for the word as well. But no, last week I had someone who I thought was a good, solid IT person ask me “how unique” a situation was, I’ve just seen a scientist on TV describe a rock formation as “quite unique”. You can’t BE “quite unique”. You can be unusual, you can be quite rare, you can be uncommon. They all mean one of a few or a bit more blagh than usual. Unique means…The One. I can’t even think of another word that means “unique” in the way that word means. “One” and “Only” and “Singular” are close, but they all indicate something is unique. You cannot have a situation that is “quite ‘the only one'”. It is the only one or it is not the only one. Tick or cross. If you claimed a situation was unique only for someone to point out that it had happened before they would say “aha! So, it is not unique”.

It would be less of a linguistic stupidity to ask “how dead is the parrot – a bit dead or a lot dead or quite dead”. The parrot is in a binary state, dead or not. {As a biologist you can actually argue about this, but most of us accept the yes/no state of dead}. It is NOT “quite dead”.

Is Usain Bolt’s 100 meters fastest time Unique? Yes. He’s the fastest, not one of the fastest, not “fairly world record holding”.

Would it make sense to say “I have the fairly only stamp of it’s kind in my possession”? No. If someone said “this set of events have approximately never happened before” you would think “huh?” and ask for clarification – maybe ask “do you mean it’s a unique set of circumstances?” and would expect a yes or no answer. Only no, I would half expect “fairly unique”. Arrrgghh!!!

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