Thought Leadership

Uniquely annoying

By Colin Walls

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?


0 thoughts about “Uniquely annoying
  • Regarding “unique”… when someone says “very unique” or “pretty unique”, I ask him (not “them”!) what he thinks the “uni” part of the word means. Why? Because that’s exactly what my high school English teacher did when I said something was “very unique”. I don’t think I’ve ever made that mistake again.

    My brother pointed out the frequent misuse of “momentarily” to me one day when we were on hold (Dell tech support for his almost-new laptop). I’d never thought of it before. Now I notice the misuse all the time. There are a couple of other similar cases like this, but right now my memory fails me.

    One thing that’s shocking to me (sorry, can’t remember if we’ve covered this ground before) — the misuse of “literally”. Of course, we all know what the word is *supposed* to mean. But so many people misuse the word as a form of indicating extreme circumstances. A college roommate of mine used to say things like “That exam literally killed me.” Unfortunately, this bastardization (sorry Colin, “bastardisation”) of the word has become so commonplace that now an acceptable definition for “literally” is “figuratively” or “virtually” — the *exact opposite* of what it really means!

    Similar to your closing question: if we corrupt the meaning/usage of “literally” to also mean its opposite, then what is an acceptable replacement?

  • Good input Dan.

    I’d forgotten about the “literally” thing, but it leaps out at me when I hear it on the radio or whatever.

    In fact, the “-ise” and “-ize” endings are both acceptable in both languages. I tend to use them interchangeably. I found a dictionary some years ago that said “-ize” is the preferred form in UK and “-ise” in US, which is the reverse of what I perceive.

  • Sorry but I can’t suggest a new word for “unique” (which we must accept has now been effectively lost as an absolute term); perhaps “truly unique”?? though to accept this means we really are throwing in the towel. I recently re-read Robert Louis Stevenson’s “An Inland Voyage”, and was struck by how much the English language has changed in 130 years, even in the British Isles: an example was that as he paddled along a river he came across local ladies working at a “lavatory”. Washing clothes, nothing else, and a much more correct use of the word than our modern use.

  • Good point about the real meaning of “lavatory” Hugh. I don’t think that had ever occurred to me, but it’s obvious really. Of course, the euphemisms, fashions and geographical variations in this subject area presents a very broad subject for discussion. I am rather fond of the totally obsolete “spend a penny” …

    • So is Michael OLeary – one of his many amusing (or annoying) quotations is that he wants to “charge a pound to spend a penny”
      on RyanAir.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at