The Last Word
How 'very unique' has literally snuck into the language
I don't know about you, but I hardly ever use the word "crepuscular" in a sentence. A spoken sentence, that is. There are some words that simply don't make it into ordinary conversation, such as "tenebrous." Okay, so maybe I'm thinking of words to describe darkened or spooky places, but there are many words that just don't lend themselves to spoken English.
"Hebdomadal." A perfectly good word to describe something that occurs at intervals of seven days, i.e. weekly, and which appears in Sir Walter Scott's Rob Roy. That's a word to send the reader scurrying to the dictionary. But the hearer isn't likely to have one at hand and probably wouldn't stop the speaker with a "hold on a sec, let me just grab my Webster's," in the middle of a conversation in the cereal aisle of Cronig's.
"Inkhorn" was the term used a couple of generations back to describe multi-syllabic words used in place of common and "less hoity-toity" language. A bluestocking might utter an inkhorn - a reference to the educated using pen and ink - term and be relegated forever to spinsterdom. Nobody likes a show off.
For those who cringe at modern language constructs, or lack thereof, be of good cheer. Language is an ever-evolving organism. Words are added to the English language on a daily basis and effortlessly. One Googles. Handy verb. Everyone knows about the words that were trademarks and have become part of the language: Kleenex, Tylenol. Pampers. Hoover, as in "I must do the hoovering" if you happen to clean house in Britain. What frustration there must be in the hearts of manufacturers when people go to the store for a box of Kleenex and come home with store-brand tissues. A few years back, I read an article about how the little trademark symbol should be affixed to those words whenever used in print. In an effort to never have to do that in fiction, I avoid using brand names. You'd think they'd like the free advertising.
I'm particularly fond of the words that are used incorrectly so often, they actually take on the opposite meaning. There's a name for that, but I'll have to Google it to find it.
My mother sits in judgment over television newscasters. "He used the word "snuck." Snuck, in my mother's view, is the bastard past tense of the word sneak, and one of those English traps most people have not just fallen into, but have embraced. "The word is sneaked." Harumph. Except that, by common usage, snuck has, well, snuck into the language and even people who should know better have come around to using it. Even the trusty Chicago Manual of Style allows it as reserved for dialect and tongue-in-cheek usage - which is what I guess the newscasters are doing.
"Literally" is another word frequently mis-used. "I literally had a heart attack when I saw the price of gas." Now now. We know better, but somehow the use of the inappropriate adverb lends drama to the statement. Besides, it sounds weird to say, 'I figuratively had a heart attack.'
Adding "very" to "unique" has become almost acceptable through idiomatic use. As the Chicago Manual of Style defines it, unique is an uncomparable adjective, something that describes an absolute state or condition. Like pregnant. Very unusual, maybe, but never "very unique."
But, back to the unspoken words. It's tricky to actually say those words out loud. How does one pronounce hebdomadal? And is it ever better to use a fancy word in place of a common one? Some writing lends itself to that; other types, such as journalism, do not. When someone says: "I had to go look up that word you used," I'm not sure if it's a compliment or complaint. In fiction, you don't want to let your reader see the writing. To interrupt the flow just to use a fancy term isn't worth it. On the other hand, a writer's medium is the word. And words are such fun.
Susan Wilson lives in Oak Bluffs. She is the author of five published novels and is working on her sixth. She also freelances, specializing in equine topics. Her column will appear on the OpEd Page twice monthly. Ms. Wilson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at her web site: www.susanwilsonwrites.com.