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A literally unique linguistic problem

Posted by Jesse Singal  July 19, 2011 02:26 PM

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I enjoyed Christopher Muther's piece in today's Globe on the cheapening of the word "literally."

"It’s a word that has been misused by everyone from fashion stylist Rachel Zoe to President Obama," Muther writes, "and linguists predict that it will continue to be led astray from its meaning. There is a good chance the incorrect use of the word eventually will eclipse its original definition."

It's an annoying tic, sure, but to me it pales in comparison to what English speakers have done to the word "unique."

"Unique" is supposed to mean "one of a kind." Something is either unique or it isn't. And yet how often do you hear the term modified? Everything is "so unique" or "rather unique." It's particularly bad in sports commentary — "He's such a unique player!"

This should be a powerful world. Something that's unique should be something that makes you stop in your tracks and say, "Damn, I have never seen anything like that." A dog with wings, perhaps. Or a singing chair.

We already live in a language environment where everything is AMAZING or OMG HILARIOUS!!!!, where there isn't much room for subtlety or linguistic forbearance. If our descriptions are going to get increasingly flat and meaningless, can we at least save the one word that should, by its very definition, be protected from such adulteration?

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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