Tuesday, August 5, 2008

This Blog Post Is Not Very Unique

Posted by Alan Childress

But it is somCrisscross_2ewhat unique. Over at the new legal writer blog, its author Ray Ward and two commenters are debating whether it is unacceptable to ask for the "most unique" entries in a survey. Is criticism of that usage proper or just pedantic?  I am sure Jeff has strong feelings on this matter since propriety and pedantics are in his wheelhouse -- as are the English language and accurate crossword puzzles. And likely a curiosity about the origins of Scrabble or the correction of common mondegreens.

Commenter Texas Appellate Lawyer writes, "Unique does mean one of a kind. But, something can be one of a kind but not that different from other things, while something else can be one of a kind and far different than anything else."  He or she disagrees with "people who claim that things are unique or not unique, and that there are not varying degrees of uniqueness...."  I added my similar view.

Ray would be willing to let this slide for Joe Blow (me), but not for the ironic source in which he found very unique used: "for crying out loud, this is Merriam-Webster. Hence the title of this post. If MW can’t stick to proper usage, then the foundation of civilization itself is decayed."  Sounds almost like the inter-greek council speech in Animal House:  I am not going to sit here and let Merriam-Webster badmouth ... the United States of America!

This scrap follows on our earlier debate at Ray's blog, under the post Why Johnny Can't Write, over whether legal writing "fellows" with short-term contracts are an acceptable or preferred model of teaching legal research and writing to 1Ls (or just different than).  Commenters have strong feelings.  I do not know why I felt the need to argue with others (experts) over these two matters, but I did. So I link to them with the idea that I might convince you to join in.  Hopefully. [Update: also picked up, before, by Greg May at his California Blog of Appeal here.]  If you do not, I will not be decimated.

Cue sound of -- hopefully not! -- Edwin Newman fuming (though not at all, at age 89, spinning in grave).


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Alan, I want to weigh in here, not as a matter of propriety or pedantics, but Western Religion. The "watchword" of Judaism is the Shema, translated into English as I prefer it: Listen up, Israel: Something that cannot be named or described is our god, and something that cannot be named or described is . . . Now, the traditional English translation would end that with the word "One," as in "Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is One." The Hebrew word translated as "one" is "echad." Some scholars believe that it would also be appropriate to translate "echad" in this context as "unique," essentially an adjective meaning "one-ish," or "incomparable" or "the only of its kind." In either case, I think a reasonable interpretation of what is going on here is a distinction between a wholly spiritual god and other Egyptian or Canaanite gods like Baal or Astarte that have a physical form. We then get to the context of whether one or unique makes any difference, and my argument (Kabbalahistic - in the Lurianic myth) is that it doesn't, the concept of one evoking a singularity (see Robert Cover's introductory pages to Nomos and Narrative for some sense of this).

So I start with the idea, borne of 3,000 years of Western civilization, that "more unique" or "most unique" is an oxymoron, because unique infers one, or incomparable, which means you can't compare uniquenesses.

Indeed I try to aspire to uniquity rather iniquity.

So there.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Aug 5, 2008 10:06:45 AM

Well, of course it "means" that. But language evolves by common usage, and now the word pretty much means distinctive. And something can be relatively distinctive. Or relatively indistinct.

Do you refuse to say "decimated" just because the term has escaped its reduction-by-10% origins?

The very definition of pedantic is being stuck to something because it is technically or historically correct in the face of massively accepted usage by others. Mad DOES mean angry now, not just insane.

And the Supreme Court in 1973 put to bed (albeit controversially) the canard that you cannot be a little bit pregnant. Some things are recognized to have degrees that were once thought of as inherently binary. Uniqueness is one of those.

Posted by: Alan Childress | Aug 5, 2008 10:28:37 AM

Of the 35 students who participated in Tulane's Spetses (Greece) summer school, one was a high school teacher just curious and not a law student. When I asked her whether she was interested in going to law school, she shuddered No. She had participated in every official and unofficial activity -- including a booze cruise, karaoke, night clubs, and dinners -- with the coolest of US law students who chose Greece to be their summer playground. She was having a blast, but will never attend law school. One simple explanation: "All you people do is correct each other, constantly."

Posted by: Alan Childress | Aug 5, 2008 10:41:38 AM

A most excellent post! And incidentally, there's nothing wrong with starting a sentence with "Hopefully."

Posted by: Ray Ward | Aug 5, 2008 5:53:29 PM

The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary (1993 edition) tends to agree with Jeff. However, this dictionary, which emphasizes British usage, also omits words like "photoresist" and "cilantro" among many others (though I especially mistrust it because it not only omits "Italian greyhound" but incorrectly describes "Siamese cat"). So it's not so authoritative, IMHO.

The New Oxford American Dictionary 2d ed. (2005), on the other hand, includes as a secondary meaning "particularly remarkable, special or unsual". It also contains a usage note explaining that in connection with this nonabsolute meaning some people use adverbs like "really," "quite" or "very," as in "a really unique opportunity." But NOAD2 suggests that it's "advisable" to avoid this. The American Heritage Dictionary 3d ed. 1992 is less reserved. It marks as "Informal" the secondary meanings "unusual, extraordinary." But it also has an unusually (uniquely?) long usage note saying that what's troubling isn't the word has come to mean "unusual," but that its usage has become so "promiscuous" even when applied in its original sense, e.g. to things like a restaurant's decor, menu or picturesque view, which may be literally unique, but trivial. I don't know whether a more recent edition of AHD is less cantankerous on this point, or has removed the 'informal' label.

As to whether it's ironic to find this "bad usage" in a dictionary like MW, NOAD2 or any other, it depends on whether you think dictionaries should serve a prescriptive or descriptive function. I think they're more useful if they're descriptive, with usage notes adding balance for prescriptivists. Most words anyway don't get their prescriptive meanings or usages by fiat or legislation; they start out as informal or metaphorical and harden through custom.

BTW, I think "echad" illustrates the point. Another interpretation has the sense of "unified" or "whole". Maybe this is a more mystical usage that's post-Biblical in origin; but pretty much all rabbinic interpretations are post-Biblical too. But I think Alan is mistaken to say "The very definition of pedantic is being stuck to something because it is technically or historically correct in the face of massively accepted usage by others." I think I prove by my own example that it's possible to be open-minded about "massively accepted usage," and yet be pedantic anyway.

Posted by: A.J. Sutter | Aug 5, 2008 6:22:42 PM

Of course A.J. does the lawyerly thing, rightly so, of quoting source books as precedent and not just winging it with argument (as I do--the egghead [lazy] academic) or invoking ancient religion or philosophy (that is *so* Jeff). Following A.J.'s strategy, but focusing on the "better" precedent of Merriam-Webster (may not be most authoritative but at least it deflects a charge of their hypocrisy), I win. That source, at least its online version, permits modification or comparison when the term is used in two appropriate broader senses that it attained soon after becoming a non-foreign word in the mid-1800s (that's right, Jeff, it is a modern word). http://concise.britannica.com/mwu/popup?book=Dictionary&va=unique

It even cites J.D. Salinger as writing "fairly unique." The Legal Profession Blog invites him to explain himself and pay him $50 for an adequate public defense.

Posted by: Alan Childress | Aug 5, 2008 7:18:58 PM

We all need to get a life. Note the time of this comment.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Aug 6, 2008 1:07:26 AM

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