Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Unique and Enormity: Two Words Destroyed Through Misuse

It’s terrible what has happened to the word unique. While it still has as its primary definition that rare status of being one-of-a-kind, it now has a secondary definition of being merely unusual.

So how did this occur? The same way literally came to have as a secondary definition its literal opposite and the same way George W. Bush’s means of saying the word nuclear became an acceptable pronunciation - through repeated error. When a mistake is made in the press and elsewhere with enough concentrated frequency, dictionaries soon embrace the aberration if it seems as though it’s becoming part of general usage.

Such is one source of the charm and vibrancy of the English language, but it is also a source of some diminishment. In researching when the watering down of unique happened, you’ll find conflicting reports, some claiming expansion of the definition in the later 19th century. In my reading though, one pattern has been consistent: good writers use unique exclusively according to the original definition.

Another fantastic word that has almost been destroyed through misuse is enormity. Its etymology is translatable as “not normal,” though numerous writers, even some good ones, have misused it, and now the cow is out of the barn. Whereas once upon a time it solely referenced heinousness and depravity, because so many people think it references vastness, that secondary definition has been ushered in. When you speak of the enormity of OJ Simpson’s accomplishments, in my opinion, you should only be referencing the double homicide.