Friday, April 14, 2006

Single, sole, solitary: And don't forget it

Thanks to Vox for today's sermon topic, the valuable and charming word "unique." This is a good one to be a real hard-nosed prescriptivist about for two reasons: one, every editor in the world will expect you to, and two, it's nice to have a word that does this job. Without further ado, four examples from this week's special section:

The group is unique in the world of small labels, a young band with experienced members.

An entirely unique creature of a record store, Apop Records proclaims online that it is an "importer of obscuro music, aberrant publications, tracts, self-deluded manifestos and all else on the fringe of pop/unpop culture."

Among hip-hop groups, Thieves' Guild is unique because it sometimes performs live with a banjo, drums and even an acordion to produce an eclectic sound.

Martin's unique style, playing a right-handed guitar upside down with his left hand, gave the band an original sound.

We already have words that mean unusual and interesting ("unusual" and "interesting," to name two). "Unique" means something else: "Of which there is only one; one and no other; single, sole, solitary," as the OED puts it. So don't qualify it -- you can't be "somewhat unique," any more than you can be a little pregnant or sort of dead -- and don't use it to mean some lesser thing: interesting, unusual, new to the writer's experience, whatever. It's a big old world out there, with lots of college towns with lots of bands, record stores, hip-hop groups and the like. For bonus points, name some guitarists who played left-handed without restringing.

Moral: Keep "unique" in the drawer for cases in which you really need it and it'll still be sharp when the occasion arises.

While we're in Vox, "Soundtrack of the City" makes it pretty clear that we're talking about the music scene right here in beautiful Columbia comma Missouri. That means just about every occurrence of "local," already a candidate for Most Useless Word in Journalism, can be deleted. I thought about counting up the references to local guitarist, local artists, local band, local quartet, local bands, local musicians and the like, but it got rather tiresome. Imagine what readers thought. Remember, friends don't let friends say "local."

A genre that was born in western North Carolina in the '30s, bluegrass is flourishing in Columbia by way of Ironweed Bluegrass Band.
"Born in western North Carolina in the '30s" is a bit of a strange contention. One is hesitant to discard it entirely, but at the least it requires a complicated conceptual and practical (and/or remarkably banjocentric) definition of bluegrass. Anybody know the reasoning behind this one?


Blogger Peter Fisk said...

Love your blog, Fev, but I think the objection to modified uniqueness is overdue for a trip to the discarded shibboleth heap. See sense 2 in the OED's "unique" entry.

Think of things as having many qualities. If one thing has more unique qualities than another, it can be construed quite logically as being more unique.

A dog that resembles Henry Kissinger would be unique, but a dog that has three tails, sings like Ethyl Merman, and engages in hyperdimensional travel would be demonstrably more unique.

5:06 PM, April 15, 2006  
Blogger melissa angle said...

jimi hendrix, duuuuude.

9:41 PM, April 16, 2006  
Blogger fev said...

Peter, tnx for stopping in, and pls feel free to comment often (Nicole, of course, already has the equivalent of the HEADSUP-L platinum mega-card). I will grant (a) that many uses of "unique" are now forward of the main line of resistance and (b) that you have got one strikingly unique dog on your hands (do you guys have an agent yet?). S/he, though, is demonstrably unique (yes, I'm modifying it again), whereas the music store is just another weird music store in Collegetown.

And that's where I hope to hold the line. However we come down on defining "unique," we need to start at least 1.9 standard deviations above "unusual."

Yes, Missourian news desk, that means pickle water (see discussion above), unusual as it might be, is NOT a "unique elixir" for staving off cramps (1A Wednesday). Though your hed, "Pickle power," is vastly better than the brainless "Pickled players" on the sports front.

9:03 PM, April 23, 2006  

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